Poems by Carol Flake Chapman 2017

CarolFlake-TeoCAROL FLAKE CHAPMAN, who has written a number of nonfiction books, returned to writing poetry after the sudden death of her husband on a wild river in Guatemala. She lives in Austin, Texas with her dog Molly. In addition to publishing her poems in various online sites, she has performed her poems in ceremonies in a Methodist church, at Chartres Cathedral in France, in a tribal circle in the Texas Hill Country, and at a Day of the Dead ritual in the pyramids at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Saying Goodbye

When it’s time to go
We don’t linger

We strike our tents
Like the circus leaving town

Leaving behind no trace
That we’ve been here

Except in memories
Of those we made

To laugh or cry
And were sad to see us go

We had our turn
In the spotlight

No wild animals
Were harmed in our show

Two photographs

She is leaning dreamily against the rail
On the front porch of the old farmhouse
Her auburn hair swept back, she could be
Maureen O’Hara awaiting John Wayne
She is just seventeen and eager to leave
The hardscrabble farm with all the chores
She escaped by practicing the old piano

She will be a music major at a Christian school
Not knowing that she will be ejected
For being too beautiful, too flirty they said
And so the dreams of winging into the world
On the chords of Bach and Beethoven
Have not yet been brought to earth
She has not yet met my father

And now she is sitting on the back porch
Of the cabin in the Hill Country
She is reading the newspaper
Wearing thick glasses to aid her failing sight
And a big straw hat to protect her skin
That has already betrayed her with cancer
She can hear the birds at the feeder

She no longer plays the piano for church
And it has gotten harder to sew and quilt
And so to remember our birthdays
She buys our blouses and quilts
She doesn’t like to cook anymore
But she has never given up gardening
And oh, all the flowers she has given us

Garden of Remedies

From my bed the glass door isn’t much of a barrier
To the life going on outside on the deck
I can see things growing in all directions
Which brings up the anxious gardener in me

It’s hard to just soak up all the green
When so much mulching and watering
Are called for in a climate that freezes
When it shouldn’t and heats up like hell

I know I’ll have to patrol for critter damage
For what the armadillos have dug up
For which tender shoots the deer have munched
For the cans the raccoons have recycled

I try not to take it personally, this invasion
Of the private space I have claimed
So close to a ravine full of dens and nests
And there is water in the birdbath of course

I can see the moss-fringed frog from Bali
The cactus whose needles I cut like fingernails
The snapdragon that has outlived its day
The hibiscus that is losing its battle with the deer

And then I lie back for a while and watch
As the wind tosses the crepe myrtle blooms
That will have to be swept but not today
When I have new plants to add to my view

Creature comfort

Waking without Molly
Is like waking
Without a warm blanket
Without coffee brewing
Without her claws clicking
As she paced the floor
Waiting for me to join her
On a morning adventure
Always a new world
To explore together


After the fire
Only bones remain
And then they are crushed
Into a gritty texture
More like sand than ashes
Six pounds worth for men
Just four pounds for women
The departed soul
Leaves no weight

Ashes coat the hand
With a powder
And when scattered
They fall
Like gray snow
Catching the current
Of air or water
To join oceans
Or find heaven

At the Gate

I can do it myself, I say
So many times to others
And so when someone offers
To help, I don’t know how
To say yes, and yet
I was so grateful to hear

You can follow me
I’ll open the gate for you

I hardly know how to say
Thank you, thank you
Because I struggled
Opening that gate
On the way in
Thinking I wanted
To give up
And go home
But he said

You can follow me
I’ll open the gate for you

I’m ready to go
My car loaded
With baggage and lunch
And here is someone
Promising a clear way
Out of this world
Back to the road home

You can follow me
I’ll open the gate for you

Filling the Silence

The silence
In your absence
Is most deafening
In the morning
When I would hear
The buzzing
Of the shaver
The splattering
Of warm water
Against the curtain
In the shower
The clack
Of your coffee cup
Landing on the table
The rustle
Of hangers
As you chose a shirt
The creak
Of the red sofa
When you sat
To check your email
The closing
Of the door
The rumble
Of the motor
As you left for work
So quiet now


Sometimes it takes a hurricane
When the lights go out
And the grocery stores close
To understand how little we know
About living from scratch
And sometimes it takes a drought
To value the water we waste
So carelessly as though it flows
Magically from source to faucet
And sometimes it takes a scourge in charge
To wake up to the possibility of loss
Of safety and veracity and all we hold dear

I was once covered with Monarch butterflies
That fluttered from branches like falling leaves
On the Sierra Polon, so many I couldn’t count them,
Awed that they were once hungry worms
That dissolved into the mush of seminal cells
Before they could take on wings and antennae
That would guide them across a continent
Carrying with them the lost souls coming home


The oak tree reaches
Deep in earth and up to sky
Rooted and rising


The black bat of despair
Stiffened in rigid angles
With face veiled in shadow
Emerges from the dungeon wall,
An emanation of decay from
The rotted plaster green with mold,
Grasping for any last drops of hope
In the glass that is always empty
And that is always out of reach
For those who can taste only bile

A Gift of Music

Was it the little pink record player she gave me
And a brand new 45 of Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue
Or was it hearing her play Bach on the organ in church
Or maybe listening to Rachmaninoff on the old stereo

My mother gave me the gift of music
Though I could never play as well as she
And when I took up the oboe
She accompanied me patiently on the piano

I cannot imagine what it took not to laugh
At the first tortured sounds of my instrument
That howled and honked until I tamed it
Into a sound that haunted in a good way

And so many years later as she lay dying
I was in Rome, my eyes blurred with tears
As I ran down the hill to the Church of Santa Cecilia
Where the patron saint of music, who died for her faith,

Lay in effigy, her pale marble head turned away
In the pose where they found her unchanged,
The slices of the executioner’s axe still visible
When her tomb was opened centuries later

As I walked up the aisle to view her yet again
I saw a young girl playing an oboe
As a nun patiently accompanied her on the organ
In a tableau transposed from my childhood

The melodies never stop, never heed barriers
As they flow through time and space
Touching us in ways we never expected
And I thanked my mother yet again for music

How to Connect

You don’t learn much from being invisible
Big deal, people walk right through you
Not even bumping heads or hearts

But being permeable, that’s a different matter
Without your outer crust, you’re so open
The breeze blows right through

But your heart is showing like a wound
And without defenses or boundaries
You can walk into a room

And you are one with the stranger
Who sees you, notices the heart
On your sleeve and starts talking

From the heart they’ve hidden
So deep it beats beneath their feet
And you walk in their shoes

But you can only go so far
In someone else’s ill-fitting shoes
And so you choose to walk barefoot

To feel the living earth beneath your feet
And so that is where at last you find
The holy common ground of connection

Lost, Found

He went to ride the river in a wild place
Where the waters coursed fast inside jungle walls

He followed the flow over rocks strewn at random
Through rapids that spun his boat round and round

He flipped over once and popped back up, a cork,
Having learned how to right himself when down

But down he went again, down, down, down
And slid out of his shell like an ousted clam

At the mercy of the rushing waters he was
A soft pebble bouncing, bouncing along the bottom

Still fighting like a warrior on a flooded field
Heart bursting, he struggled strongly against his fate

But the river was winning, holding him down
Until released, his soul unleashed, he rose

That night his spirit came to me over the waters
I could still smell the river fresh on his God-sent breath

As he told me of the brightest wonders he had beheld
When the river embraced him hard in its darkest depths

The Twelve Commandments of Poetry

1. Thou shalt know many poets before thee.
2. Thou shalt take no name in vain.
3. Thou shalt heal wounds with thy words.
4. Thou shalt open eyes and ears with thy phrases.
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ lives but celebrate them.
6. Thou shalt not engage in overkill.
7. Thou shalt bear true witness constantly.
8. Thou shalt praise and scold in equal measure.
9. Thou shalt honor all thy kin around the world.
10. Thou shalt make many graven images.
11. Thou shalt remember each day and make it holy.
12. Thou shalt keep thy poetic license current.


Red sky at night
The moon is wearing a corona
And I thought I heard an owl
Hooting from on high
Or was it the wind
And there is a rustling
In the grass across the way
Maybe a snake, perhaps a mouse

All these are signs
That serve as comfort or warning
Depending on how scarce
Your sense of belonging
To this earth that speaks
In a tongue we are trying to learn

Cross Ties

The cross has not forgotten
It was once a tree
Rooted in earth
Now planted on a hill
It points toward heaven
Timeless in its reach
Its arms aiming east and west
Past and future nailed in the present
If the cross could ache
In the way we ache
It would ache for the body
That it held like fruit
Now empty it stands bereft
The bare bones of a living tree

Without the Wind

Without the wind
The stillness would be stifling
No flags would flutter
Windchimes would hang lifeless

Without the wind
What would waft the smells
Of freshly baked bread and newly mown grass
What would tell us of rain on the way

Without the wind
The trees would have no voice
Because it is the wind
That stirs the leaves into tongues

Without the wind
How could the eagles soar
High over the canyons
Finding updrafts to ride

Without the wind
Blowing in from the east
Billowing out of the west
How would we know our directions

Without the wind
We would cherish our fans
Corporations would make giant turbines
Someone would market breeze in a can

Without the wind
We would long for the gusts of yesteryear
Even for the hurricanes from A to Z
And the breezes that dried our tears

Without the wind
How could we feel the breath of the earth
How could we face the brunt of the storm
How could we know we are alive


The swan swims to me swiftly
Posing and gabbling softly
I like to think he loves me
But alas Leda

No Regrets

If hope is the thing with feathers
Then regret is the thing with scales
That slithers to the door waiting
To strike you as you walk out
To wrap itself around your ankles
So that your stride is heavy with doubt
So that you see nothing but clouds
So that even the air is poisoned
And so carry an antidote with you
Like a happy memory wrapped in silk
Ready to be unfurled like a banner



In sad pictures
Touch hearts and launch missiles
While children who flee for their lives
Find walls

Keys of Black and White

You could tell ‘em the keys are just black and white,

No shades of gray, says my dad
When I say I’m writing a poem about a piano

And no elephants were killed to make it,
He says, as we think about the old Baldwin
On which he and my mother made music

He’s tickled the ivories for well over 80
Of his 93 years, playing jazz and hymns
While my mother played Bach and Beethoven

And when she was paralyzed and could no longer play
He took to an old upright at the nursing home parlor
Where we would bring my mother in a wheelchair

He would open an old hymnbook from home
And launch boldly into The Old Rugged Cross
While a caged canary in the hallway trilled along

My mother’s left arm would rise and fall
With the music, conducting the choir
With the only part of her left unencumbered

One day he played some Dave Brubeck tunes
And the ladies in the home woke up from their dozing
And began to tap their toes, those that could

For those measures in five-four time they were not shadows
Of who they had been but were fully in the moment
And what I want to say is that my father was playing grace

True Colors

I wonder if it is in autumn
That we find our true colors
And not in the glorious riot of spring
When young life bursts out of winter
Making us a little delirious with desire

When leaves turn colors
It’s not an adornment
In preparation for death
But rather an unmasking
Of what was already there

The trees are throwing themselves a jazz funeral
As the chlorophyl that boosts the green
Dwindles, leaving it to the carotenoids
To emerge in yellow-gold brilliance
Bringing us a bittersweet dance to the grave

It’s as though nature, always the artist
Is indulging in pentimento, changing course
In the middle of a painting
Revealing the underlayer only
When the top layer is removed

Pentimento, of course, in Italian is remorse
And so perhaps she may regret
Deceiving us with all that green
When it was bright red, yellow and purple
That we were meant to see all along


Sometimes I think I’m fearless
As I gallop a half-wild horse
Across the Mongolian steppes
Or walk city streets alone at night

I’ve never been a skydiver
But I’ve done my share
Of jumping without a net
Sometimes crashing, sometimes not

I was never afraid of flying
Or even falling as I climbed
But one day I fell from a tree
And I began to climb more cautiously

What I was afraid of was not falling
But failing to get what I wanted
To get where I wanted to go
So the fearlessness was a cover story

I didn’t have an opinion about dying
Because it seemed so far away
My family had good genes, after all
And I was a fast runner at fifty

My husband was a former Green Beret
Who taught survival training in the jungle
He taught me some self-defense moves
He was invincible, I thought

And then came the phone call
That the wild river in Guatemala
Had taken him suddenly
And my hidden fears came true

The worst thing that could happen
Did happen in spite of good odds
And now I was afraid of the future
Fearing I would be lost forever in grief

Six years later I am sometimes afraid
But the grief is shadow grief
As clouds drift athwart the sun
And I am in darkness for a while

The worst fear of all is to be alone
But I see him everywhere
I hear him in the wind
And I still climb trees though slowly

No Blank Slates

I love the idea of a tabula rasa, a blank slate

Of coming into the world sinless and clean
Of starting each day with a guileless smile
Of beginning each page with a fresh idea
Of greeting each person with no preconceptions

But we are human, after all
And there are many who came before us
So we’re not reinventing the wheel every day
And that’s probably a good thing
As I can’t imagine writing a poem
Without thinking about Whitman or Dickinson
Whose words echo in my mind and beneath the page

I try to just borrow a little and not copy
And I try not to superimpose another face
On the man who looks at me from across the room
I try not to let the frustrations of the father
Become the anger of the daughter
For I’m not sure I can separate
What I’ve inherited from what I’ve created


Looking up from my work
I glance out the window
And there is the damned squirrel
Jumping onto the bird feeder again

Which reminds me
How did the deer get on the deck
And why did it eat the tomato plant
Leaving just a suggestion of a stem

How did the bamboo escape the fence
And send its runners into the yard
What is that scratching
In the wall behind the fireplace

What is that sprouting up
Through my nice gravel drive
And will the expanding sycamore
Knock the roof of the shed out of kilter

It’s all out of control
And yet here comes the hummingbird
The first of the season
To try out the new glass feeder

And there are the cardinals
Splashing in the birdbath
And now I hear the screech owl
Hidden in the oak across the way

How are all these beings to know
Whether they are welcome at my house
It’s not as though I’ve put ouf
A selective welcome mat

I don’t know the language of weeds
Or how to talk to mice and roaches
To tell them they need to stay away
While I embrace the birds and flowers

Street Walking

Old brownstones remind me somehow of trees
With their facades of burnt sienna and raw umber
You can buy paint in the shade of Brooklyn brownstone
But it won’t capture the elusive reds and oranges
And even purples that are the secret ingredient
Of the streets where you want to slow down
And take a look in the shop windows
Where someone has displayed an old stuffed goose
Or maybe a classic creaking typewriter

When I walk the narrower streets of Paris or Rome
I always imagine opening a shop of my own
Where I would sell wishes, dreams and fantasies
In the form of chocolates, stuffed dragons and unicorns
Along with my favorite books in all languages
I once walked by a shop with my name on it
And stopped in to see if by chance
I had already opened the shop while sleepwalking
And was glad someone else had done all the work

Finding Home

I was a bird for a day
Not because I could fly
But because a storm
Turned my world topsy turvy

A giant oak came crashing to earth
Leaving a hole in the sky
Where it had blocked my view
Its huge limbs sprawled
As though a body
Had fallen from heaven

They cancelled school that day
And my friends and I, playing Tarzan,
Swarmed over the tree
Like Lilliputians over Gulliver

It was as good as riding an alligator
Whose jaws had been bound
Like petting a whale
Something you only get to do
In a dream or theme park

I gathered the Spanish moss
That had dripped from the tree
Like the tangled hair of a wizard
And made a nest and climbed in
I fell asleep in the fallen treetop
A baby bird safe under the wing of the mother

This is how the world
Shows itself sometimes
You strain to look up, to climb
Then the tree, like the mountain,
Comes down to you
Bringing an intimacy
Letting you touch it
Your hands in the wound


Why is it that gardens have gates
And the woods beckon without them
I know that my garden needs fences
To keep the deer from devouring the daffodils

An enclosed garden is like an enclosed heart
Where we keep our secrets safely
And where things grow to order
And weeds just don’t belong

But when I venture into the woods
I’m the one who might be trampling
On something precious and sacred
I need to watch my step

Without a gate how can you tell
When you’ve crossed the threshold
Into the wild, into the mystery
Where trespassing can take you deeper


What if the sun rose without colors
And the dawning of a new day
Shifted from black to gray to bright
Without the gift of all that splendor

And what if the day left unheralded
With just the fading of brightness
Would we celebrate the coming of light
And regret its passing so deeply

And so I give thanks to the fiery dawn
And to the sunset that glows so fiercely
Giving us a dramatic start and ending
To whatever comes between