There’s sage sausage hash in the crock-pot. And the wind is blowing so hard that the tree branches hitting the gutters on the roof sounds like rain. I’m drinking a cup of tea and thinking this feels nothing at all like spring.

I have a tidy list of things to do, but feel myself splaying across the day like an amoeba – reaching where instinct calls me – five directions at once. Not great when I’ve been feeling worn thin, but on the other hand, it is nice to notice how interesting the world is – so many things to dip into.

I think it is bad advice to say people should do one thing, and do that one thing well. It certainly is a limited – practical – view of what we are “supposed to” do with our lives. Be useful. Provide something of a defined and comparable value to others. From one perspective, it seems that when we move beyond the need to use all of our waking hours to provide for our own – and our immediate family’s – sustenance, we are brainwashed to think we have to use our “free time” to achieve the same kind of commodity-oriented goals. When I saw “we”, I mean “me”. But I am very sure I am not alone in this. There is a huge backlash to the whole productivity movement. But I have yet to see the relinquishing of the “do one thing well” idea. The branding. The minimalism. The easily identified, quantified, and typeset in stone on a grave marker. You get eight words to sum up your life.

Does anyone aspire to the epitaph: She did a great many things moderately well?

Norwegian call people like this potatoes. Here lies Ren Powell, Potato.

I don’t know. Maybe that would be just fine. But I am hoping by the time I fall apart that it will be legal to put me in a sack at the base of a sapling. No “Here lies”, at all. I remember – morbidly – writing a suicide note when I was in my mid-twenties. A poem about finally being nourishing. I think I have felt an enormous pressure to make myself useful since I was a child. A pressure to be worthy. And the consequential need for approval. Justify my existence.

Today I am sitting at my desk and I can see the bookshelves in front of me. I am in the middle of sorting through them – my collection having outgrown the space in this little bibliotekette. After yesterday’s temporary shuffling, right in my line of sight are books on travel writing, on playwrighting, on memoirs. But today I am not seeing them as accusations. I’m not judging myself. I followed those roads as far as they interested me. We aren’t supposed to treat the relationships in our lives this way, but maybe that’s all the more reason we should give ourselves the freedom to move on when a delight becomes a chore. My life is so damn circular, I may well pick the genres up again someday. Why have I been convinced that I have to choose everything in my life and stick with it – or deal with the shame of “failure”. I know myself and I know I don’t give up when things get hard. I follow through. But I don’t continue pushing when there is no desire either.

“If you are doing something moderately well, then stay in your lane. Continue. Try to prove you are worthy of the time you have on this planet, in this form.”

Why?

I don’t believe that the bacteria that will break down our bodies and make it useful for the planet again care what we have done, what is on our CV, what awards we have. Even the history books we long to be included in are fictions and distortions of stories that will suit or not suit the future, but have nothing to do with us at all. What’s in a name? A form of ancestor worship. A system of faith – religion even.

Of course, I want to excel. I want to be renown and respected. But I keep asking myself if that’s the measure of a good life at all.

Right now I’m going to pour myself some more tea and tend to my day job tasks – a job I used to love but now loath. And I am praying that my life will circle around and I will want to do the work again someday … soon.

Me: embryonic
an immortal jellyfish
reverted – not new
but new – translucent under
over the world is endless

I am not as crabby as I am today. These are exceptional circumstances. I am taking deep breaths, and large sips of wine and trying to remember that everything is fine: perfection is not a goal.

I worked only two and a half hours yesterday, and it took everything I had. No lectures, not pressure, but just being there was difficult. I came home to find a message of one of the students wrote to me. It made me cry. It reminded me that the majority of the people in the world are kinder than we want to believe. And by that I mean it is easier sometimes to blame our problems on other people’s callousness, or cruelties, or inconsideration. But no. Sometimes life is just very hard. And the why’s don’t matter as much as the dusting ourselves off to standing tall and try again.

If I were to paint a self-portrait right now, it’d be a small girl with gravel in the bleeding heels of her palms, in her raw knees. Sunburned and dusted with the desert grit. Tear-tracks caked like mud on her cheeks. You don’t give up, you take that red rubber ball of anger in your gut and slam it against the cinder block wall. The same ball the kids use to play cannonball. Sanctioned bullying during P.E. class. The same cinder block that blurs every apartment building from Vegas to L.A. into one porous memory.

I think what I’m getting at is that the world is still unfair. And sometimes I wonder if I have ever learned to cope with that reality.

It has been too long since I’ve run. But I’ve promised myself to begin this week. To give myself that. Sometimes what looks like laziness is deliberate self-destruction. When I do begin running, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wound up with bleeding hands and knees. It takes a lot to remember to lift my knees high enough on those dark mornings. Just in case there are fallen branches. And this body as it is now, is unfamiliar. In the way of itself. I keep telling myself this is a liminal season. Accept and move on. All the bodies I have inhabited. Just now I think of the photos I’ve seen: me at the age of 6 or so, sunburned and bleached. Now I get the occasional flush of red on my face, and my hair, now gray, is pretty much the same kind of pale as then. And I am that kind of rubber-ball angry. You can throw it as hard as your body can manage, and it still is not satisfying.

There are times I wish there were someone else to remember this girl. To tell me about her. Today I am missing my grandmother. As sticking as she could be, she did always teach acceptance. Perfection is not a goal. On the other hand – it wasn’t a goal because one should stay in one’s own lane. There are consequences for over-reaching.

Yesterday I found out that the paper I’d chosen for the paperback books wasn’t good enough. The quality of the actual printed book wasn’t acceptable when taking into account the photography and acrylic prints. I spent the day and evening taking new photographs and then reformatting the book with new paper choices.

It’s all a learning process. A humiliating, frustrating, never-ending learning process.

If you are reading this and have already purchased a paperback copy, please contact me asap so that I can get a high-quality book in your hands (at no extra charge, of course!)


a paper cut
a tiny wound, where pressure
gaping, electric
a whole body singing
in dissonance with itself

Getting going in the mornings is like trying to herd cats, as they say. I remember pulling the crockpot out of the corner and onto the countertop to start dinner. Lunchtime I went back into the kitchen to see it there. Empty. Useless. Forlorn.

I’m projecting again.

I keep reminding myself (at the risk of sounding like an inspirational meme) that life is a specific dance. One step back, two steps forward, one step back. And then your partner accidentally kicks you in the shin. (For the record, my partner is an excellent dancer, and only kicks me in the shins metaphorically.)

Anti-climax is definitely a thing. And – although I am excited about new projects – I am trying very hard to move forward. This morning I showered and dried my hair with a blow dryer for the first time in over two months. I put make-up on. Braving the cold winds and intermittent hail, I picked up the binder’s board I ordered two weeks ago. I picked up wine. And some lavender shampoo because I have been feeling very…. pragmatic lately. At least in terms of personal hygiene. I’m ready for some scented candles and soft music. I want to smell something besides sandpaper and pulp. And cuddle-puppy.

Speaking of which, I’m worried about how Leonard will take me going back to work this week. The pup is 35 kilo of adoration and has even taken to crawling up in E.’s lap when I’ve been sewing the signatures for books. Although I suppose E. will be working from home for a while yet. The vaccine roll-out here is shamefully inept. We’re expecting another spike over the next two weeks from the Easter holidays. I fully expect to go back to work, only to wind up teaching part-time online again.

But hey… roll with it? Right now nothing seems quite recognizable and I am beginning to relax a little. To come to terms with that. I suppose it really is a lesson in not clinging – even if it means not clinging to sanity either. I mean in the way that we can only approach these things obliquely. Catch a tiger sliding up alongside with a peach in hand, rather than charging head-on with a net.

Easy-does-it.

I’ve another doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Then heading slowly back to real life on Friday. The most frightening thing is that I am comfortable here in the house. Too comfortable. I’m almost afraid to go out and interact with people. Fragile. No. That’s not right. I am not fragile. Reactive.

Maybe Friday I should bring a crate of peaches to work. Yeah. Good luck finding decent peaches anywhere in this country.

did I say this was
my second glass with dinner
rambling uncensored
stepping right through the surface
of decorum like thin ice

Here we are in America’s national poetry month, and I find myself not getting to the books on my nightstand. I was ambitious and said I would read a collection a day. But I didn’t anticipate the steep learning curve associated with Facebook Shops and “pixels” and currency converters, and plug-ins that work then don’t work then work again. This side of things is hard. No wonder my Norwegian publisher never really did much of this kind of thing: marketing. I suck at it. And I find social media intimidating and awkward. I am not a cheerleader type. Never the leader of the pink ladies. Never a Heather. And really, I am fine with that. But actually not sure how my introverted “authenticity” translates to functional marketing. The words followers and fans make me sick to my stomach, tied up with all kinds of ambivalence.

I am so grateful for E.’s amazing moral support when I hit the stupid-wall and start thinking: This is what you get for leaving your lane. Who do you think you are? You’re going to crash and burn. I’m trying to get things to a not-too-embarrassing state now, and then let it rest for a few days. Get back to poetry.

This evening I’m going to dive back into Rachel Barenblat’s book Crossing the Sea. (See what I did there?) I’m halfway through and incredibly moved. I’ve been thinking of Dave (at The Skeptic’s Kaddish) who set up a blog as a way to grief his father. Barenblat is a rabbi and this collection is about her mother’s death.

People say that everyone goes through this, but I never will. I say that to point out how powerful these poems are. The speaker draws me into her relationship with her mother and her grief. Her poem “Mother’s Day” begins with: It’s a year of firsts/and most of them hurt.

In “Pedicure”, she talks about the simple thing of removing the nail polish that she had on for the funeral: […] replaced with periwinkle, luminous and bright/like your big string of pearls you do not know/are mine now that you’re gone.

There’s a reason why I couldn’t read this book in one day. It’s like trying to eat a whole mayonnaise cake in one sitting. But I’m looking forward to picking it up again.

But first, there’s housework. And some yoga. Trying to get back into – oh, I don’t know, integrated with the rest of the world here: friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in nearly two months. And then there is work later this week. Students. There’s clothing that isn’t loungewear. Make-up. Shoes.

In some ways I’ve been
in a womb, cocoon, nestled
with the dull sounds of
blunted percussives, every
thing in the world – swaddled

The house is (mostly) clean now. I’ve moved acrylic paints and sewing frames upstairs to the new studio/”cabin” — as E. calls it. He’s nestled in now on my old purple couch watching war movies. It is odd to have the house to ourselves again. It’s not that we needed the space, but it does make it easier for us to be more conscious about how we use our time. No more television in the bedroom. Sleep hygiene is a thing. A thing I am not very good at observing.

It’s evening again — upside-down day again — but Leonard is lying here beside me as though it makes no difference at all. The birds, though, they know. There’s no singing. Instead, I hear the neighbor puttering around in his garage. It’s kind of cozy, I suppose. But it’s not birdsong.

Easter seems to sneak up on me as much as any other holiday. After living here more than a quarter of a century, how is it I still forget to plan for all of the bank holidays now? I set out to go to the store yesterday for dog food when E. reminded me it was Good Friday. In Norwegian it’s Long Friday, which makes a lot more sense to me, considering how I doubt Jesus would have described the day as “good”. Everyone goes back to work on Tuesday. Sunburned from skiing, if they’re lucky.

Me? No skiing for me. But I feel my body longing for a good sweat. Lying on the beach with a book, dripping into my eyes and my cleavage, until I feel compelled to throw myself into the surf. What I wouldn’t give for a good summer day right now. Or this year at all, since travel still won’t be a possibility for us. Rogaland summers aren’t always warm. I’m trying to be optimistic, and planning on giving surfing another go this year now that I’m off blood thinners.

But I will take what comes and most of all be grateful for my health. Mental and physical. Things are rolling evenly these days in terms of my mood. I can’t describe how relaxing that is. Not having to second guess my sanity. And today — though I have “gone soft” in more ways than one over the past couple of months — getting dressed this morning I didn’t hate my body. I know that voice in my head is due back any minute to tell me I’m disgusting and weak and irresponsible — but it helps to notice the peace in its absence.

It astounds me really that there are people in the world who live their whole lives without those hateful voices in their heads. I envy those people. Not just for my own sake, but considering that I would have been a better partner, a better mother had I not assumed there was a state of perfection that we could all achieve somehow. If we worked hard enough at it. Had discipline. Were pure of heart. It’s frightening what we pass on to other people in our lives in our pursuit to be “good”.

I went to Christian camps for several years as a pre-teen. The bar was high for “good”. I remember once we were sitting in the morning assembly and the pastor asked us to imagine that soldiers entered the room and said they were going to shoot all the Christians. To imagine the soldiers then asked all the Christians to stand: Would you stand? the pastor asked. Who asks ten-year-olds what they would do under those circumstances? Some ten-year-olds are deep thinkers. Some think more deeply than 30-year-old pastors. Some of them have experienced violence in a way that does not make this question as fantastical as one might assume. People set the bar extremely high. In so many ways. Suck it up, move on, forgive and forget, be a paragon to succeed in the world.

Sometimes I wonder about the chicken and egg situation when it comes to my “intense” personality. My deep thinking.

I have a handful of nightmares from my childhood that I remember vividly even today. Some I find difficult to talk about. But one was about the hoof-footed Devil from an illustration in the Children’s Bible my mother would read to me before bed. He tempted Jesus to throw himself off the mountaintop. I don’t remember exactly what the Devil wanted from me. I just remember the electric-cold-sweat-fear that I can still sense on the edge of my consciousness.

About ten years ago, I actually went on eBay to buy a copy of that old brown-covered Children’s Bible. It’s in awful condition, but it is on the shelf in the living room with all the other Bibles and theology books. Sometimes I worry if I lose my mind at the end, like my Grandmother did, that those illustrations will torment me. The writing finger of God. The three boys who would not burn. The soldiers killing all the babies in their mothers’ arms.

I’m not sure why I slid over onto this topic. It wasn’t my intention. Easter is supposed to be about renewal.

Sometimes it is difficult to renew and move forward without kicking off what’s stuck to your shoes.

the kale is still green 
after a winter’s neglect
its leaves press against
the glass that kept it alive
its stem reaching from the rot

I promised myself a publication date of April 1, 2021. And I managed to pull it off … after what seems like so many years of just thinking about it.

This is the first and only time I will duplicate much of the content of my monthly newsletter in my blog posts. But since I have a whopping dozen on my list so far… I’m spreading the news thick as peanut butter today because I am proud, excited, and a little bit desperate to sell a few books despite my lack of marketing skills:

Mad Orphan Lit is a private publishing project for hand-bound multimedia poetry books, and broadsides (on handmade paper) by Ren Powell.


I realized this week that, although Mad Orphan Lit has been a long time in the planning, everything is a process and I have been working steadily toward this – at a slant.

When my first book was published in 1999, the original concept with the publisher was a coffee table book of light verse and photography on the theme of childbirth. For reasons I won’t go into, the book wound up a traditional paperback. Though, I was still both grateful and proud of my first book.

The next books were beautiful hardback, bilingual editions of not-so-light poetry with Wigestrand Publishing in Norway. I have also been fortunate to work with Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing in Canada on a selected poems book called Mercy Island. Still, all this time, I wanted to work more holistically with the presentation of the poetry.

I have always cared about how the words look on the page. And I have always had a drive to work with studio art – in college, I shifted my major back and forth from art twice.

I’ve wanted to literally be more “hands-on” with my poetry books. About ten years ago I took a book-binding course with the award-winning binder, and expert teacher Ingeir Djuvik. I made blank books at first. Then personal planners. Then I wrote a poetry book for my now-husband. A one-of-a-kind. And the idea for Mad Orphan has been brewing since then.

Who knows, maybe it was the physical isolation of the pandemic, the consequential need for touch, that pushed me onto the playing field finally?

Mad Orphan Lit’s first project is IMPERMANENCE

The project began with my daily meditation on the philosophical problem of impermanence, and the Noble Truth that our suffering is caused by our inability to accept (or even see) impermanence. The poems and the visual/physical presentation of the work evolved together.

The bust was made of plaster and paper mache (using my handwritten poems for the project ripped into strips). I photographed the bust in various locations in the Jæren landscape of Norway. If you read my blog, you already know the story of how I lost my head: it was supposed to break up slowly in the waterfall during filming. Instead, it was taken by the current and slipped under an old mill house - trapped by the torrent of water, the wooden beams, and the rocks.

That’s the way of things, isn’t it?

THE PROCESS

The process of writing, making, and destroying poetry objects.

Monoprints, handwriting, and sewing.

THE BOOK

IMPERMANENCE by Ren Powell
A Conceptual Multimedia Artwork:
42 Poems
Photography, Handwritten text
Acrylic Monoprints

Moroccan handmade paper (hardcover)
Double-Needle Coptic Stitching
(note: this intentionally loose stitch allows for an open-back and “lay flat” binding)
15 X 20 cm, 60 pages
Text block: 160gsm acid-free, ethically resourced paper

120 EURO Limited series of 10
April, 2021
Now on sale now at Mad Orphan Bookshop.

NB: Paperback facsimiles available here for 15 USD plus shipping.

THE GOSSIP

“Ren Powell’s Impermanence acts as a reminder, both visual and visceral–in its physiological meaning (the heart, the gut)–that we live in and through the stories we tell. The cursive in her illustrations operates as one of several connectors that loop through her poems until these pictures and words combine to create, as she puts it, origami boxes: “your stories/ folding in on themselves.”
– Ann E. Michael, poet

“The delicate exquisiteness of this text, the stories Ren tells, via poems I whispered aloud, is added to, and enhanced, by the artworks created by Ren… I reach page 10, completely in love with the artwork. I turn the pages, as much to read the next poem, as to discover the next piece of art. The clarity of, ‘and we remember it/and we tell it/differently’.  The poem seems to float somewhere between the space that is Art, and the everyday reality of recognising a life truth… Reading this collection of poetry, I feel the presence of Ren … wise woman, teller of tales, wandering woman, warrior woman. A woman prepared to share her journeys, both real and imagined. A woman who makes a paper mache bust of her self and takes it out into the world to create images that further delight a mind already seduced by the power of her poetry. This book, IMPERMANENCE … I can only write that I found so much pleasure in its pages.
– Di Mackey, photographer and writer

“… you look up day after day surprised by the foreign landscapes of your own making” Ren Powell’s seventh poetry collection dissects the minutiae of life, and puts it back together in different unfamiliar shapes. Impermanence is what we are. In this collection of new poems, Ren Powell turns the human condition into a collage of words, drawings, and the blank spaces between breaths.
-Richard Pierce, poet/novelist/radio personality

THE PLEA

Please consider signing up for my monthly newsletter that announces new books, broadsides, and other projects that I’m publishing all by my lonesome. And I promise not to turn my blog into a spammy series of adverts.

Oh, and if not for yourself, maybe buy a book as a gift for someone you love. (My upcoming project is designed as a gift book: a notebook with writing prompts for poets and yoga-enthusiasts.)

Thank you for your time!

MAD ORPHAN LIT. BOOKSHOP

I slept well. The first night in four or five nights, maybe. I woke yawning, but clearer than I’ve been in a few days. This morning I noticed I put last night’s pork chop leftover in the freezer not the refrigerator. I also can’t find my nifty hole-punch pen. My first thought is that Leonard took it and hid it, since it scares the bejeezus out of him. It makes a horrendous “thwop” sound when I pull up on it, let go – and the coil slams the metal pieces together to drive a hole into the paper (and into the wood slab under the paper).

Yesterday when I was using it, he crawled up in E.’s lap – all 35 kilo-or-so of him curled up awkwardly in a rocking chair against the man he’s barely trusted for two-and-a-half years. I think E. secretly liked it.

Still, I doubt Leonard absconded with the thing. I should check the freezer.

It’s Easter vacation, but everything seems quiet. A friend sent me a photo of flowers blooming. She’s in a town a few hours south of here. Here it’s raining. The magpies are monopolizing the seeds we leave out for the finches. And I saw what I thought was a next while we were running on Monday, only to have E. point out that all the feathers were from the dead goose lying in the center of the “nest” in the reeds.

Mink have to eat, too, I suppose.

We’d stopped for a few minutes about 500 meters before the end of our run to watch two squirrels – playing? fighting? mating? I have no idea. But they were loudly chasing each other around the trunks of trees, and hopping from tree to tree. Flashes of deep russet in the otherwise gray day.

When I first began running – more than ten years ago – the flashes of the white tails of deer were my reward for getting out there. I took it very personally. A nod from the universe that I was doing well. But there aren’t really deer here where we run. In five years we’ve seen three. And worried about the unleashed dogs we know are there in the mornings. Dogs will go after a deer. But I am pretty sure the geese and the swans can take on any dog.

Now I wait for the cows to be let out of the barn every spring. I stop and talk to the heifers that wander near the fence next to the trail. Take their pictures, while the matriarch scolds them for whatever… I imagine they’re being called “attention-seeking” or “flirt”. At any rate, they are beautiful creatures. But I think I’ve written about this before? The under-appreciated beauty of a healthy cow.

When I lived in Kentucky the boys in high school called girls heifers. I swear, heifers are downright charming animals. In England, of course, “cow” is a common insult. What the hell is wrong with cows? Sure, there are ornery cows. But there are ornery sheep, and goats have devil eyes, and cats? Cats can be downright impish. Nudging things off counter tops while they stare you square in the face. I had a cat once, given to me by a boyfriend, who peed all over my new boyfriend’s things. But the cultural norm is to use “kitten” as some kind of sexy term-of-endearment. What is wrong with people and their relationship to animals? And maybe baby animals in particular?

For the record, I do not want E. to begin calling me a cow as a term of endearment either. At least not in public. I am not confident enough to be the vanguard of bovine re-branding.

I think our relationships with animals are as bizarrely “branded” as our relationships with people. We are all ugly messes – some of us are just better at public relations than others.

Stuck in a story
from a single perspective
– bite for bite – we eat
the elephant in the room
never apologizing