I-70 Review

Writing and Art from the Middle and Beyond

Marjorie Stelmach

     Marjorie Stelmach is the author of six volumes of poetry, most recently Walking the Mist (Ashland Poetry Press). Previous volumes include Bent upon Light and A History of Disappearance (University of Tampa Press) and Without Angels (Mayapple). Her first book, Night Drawings, was selected by David Ignatow to receive the Marianne Moore Poetry Prize from Helicon Nine Editions. She was one of the three recipients of the first Missouri Biennial Award and most recently, was awarded the 2016 Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal. After thirty years of teaching high school English, she served for ten years as the first director of the Howard Nemerov Writing Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Florida Review, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Image, The Iowa Review, New Letters, and Tampa Review, among others.

Artist's Statement:


     I think many poets begin writing because, like a painful tooth that draws the tongue,  there is something that won't let go of them. Something undefined announces itself as central, but … the center of what? My first volume of poems gathered my attempts to give meaning to losses I had been too young to understand when they occurred. Loss, then, was central. David Ignatow, in his introduction to my first collection, called it “a prayerful book,” which was news to me. He was right though. He had identified a second center. Two centers? A new bewilderment. I'm still working the territory of that bewilderment, trying to find meaning in loss, seeking answers that, if they exist, exist beyond me. Over the course of six books, much has changed, but perhaps the most important has been a widening of the circle from the territory of my own search to territories other seekers have marked out for their own search. Of course, I was only making up their discoveries as I went along, but those other lives taught me.

     My current work concerns the lives of visual artists in old age, specifically how their last works draw on their own lives. I look closely at their artistic development and especially at that last painting or drawing or sculpture and try to glean something of what they discerned in living and working. Then I take on their voices or borrow a structure that seems to rhyme with their approach to art and see where it all takes me. I love the research, love finding some way to enter another life as fully as I can. I always learn something, though often it feels, as Plato claimed, that all knowledge is a retrieval of knowledge we once owned.  

     If I started writing to address my own bewilderments and longings, perhaps I kept writing because that task of finding meaning has to be endless, it has to last out our lives. What would I do if I arrived at a satisfying answer? Take up commodities trading? Or ping pong? No, I suspect I'd find a flaw in my provisional answer. Then I'd pick up my pencil and get back to work.

Grace Notes

If a sparrow dies in flight, the sky

turns inside out accepting it.

A feather may drift about for days

to mark a moving plot

with the thin blade of a name.

But no sparrow falls.

Dimly prescient, sparrows cup their seeds

in fragile domes, hollow as heavens.

In time the skies crack

and grow wide with fledglings.

Winged like eighth notes,

they hold in hollowed bones

space enough for a grave

should grace prove too slow.

              published in Night Drawings

            (Helicon Nine Editions)

Our Better Angels


we take the old precautions:

avoid wearing white on white,

          remember in the pubs  

     to rise to no one's bait,

betray no recognition

of the sooty gargoyles

lolling above

     in their bat suits

          and tongues.

Despite our loyalties,

we toss like you

on feather pillows.

          On the underground

     we evade the gaze

of those, transparently mad,

who have boarded with us

and are speaking

     to God.

At least it's peacetime.

Even so,

there's October to weather.

          By moonrise,

     the lost ones

who huddle under bridges

will have burned the last

of the day's trash;

     some won't survive

          the night, and we

must learn again,

how to bear it.      

High on stone cornices,


     sharpen icicles

on the pitiless winds,

while below in the shops


     are trying on bones.

As November lengthens,

it's hard to remember

our mission.      

          We're so overdue for joy,

     we hook up with strangers,

unfolding our shivering souls

beneath down comforters

that lie

     as lightly as kin

          on our bodies.  

In our reckless need, we neglect

to hide our celestial flesh,

let slip our flawlessness, allow

          our wings. By Advent,

     we remember the reason

we left here in the first place.

It wasn't the wars, the callousness,

the cold: it may be

     impossible to love you.

             published in Without Angels

                  (Mayapple Press)


The brittle cold's back. The wind at full gust,

plays the corners of my house like a toy kazoo.

Do children play “parade” these days, humming

on a wax-wrapped comb, drumming

whatever pans are allowed?  Not likely, I suppose.

How, then, prepare their little hearts for war?  

I can feel it still, the buzz that lingered on my lips

for minutes afterward, recall the sting that clung

to my finger-pads, the tingle on my palms. How else

prepare their tender flesh for love?  

As always, it comes down to sex and violence: the requisite

alignment of the young with what the future knows

will rarify and rend them, exhaust them in the end,

as I'm exhausted with it all,

with loves proved false, wars proving nothing,

winter after winter of undisciplined winds

and ice enough to drive me indoors where the hums

are kept fastidiously vague, the lighting weak,

the music muted; where, if I lower my guard, my lips

will begin to quiver with the names

of so many gone—that endless parade—and

my palms to open and close of themselves:

supplication / rage; supplication / rage.

                               published in Falter

                                       (Cascade: Poiema Series)

Lines for the Spider

On the far side of these mountains, rain is falling in my mother's city.

Standing in my doorway in spring sun, I let imagined rain-song fill me.

Just beyond the doorstep, spiders are at work in the tangled grasses

spinning sun-catchers, snagging bits of brightness, weaving

glimpse and gone.

Lingering jewels of dew nudge the light; they won't be long.

They tremble, as they should on a planet spun of time

where we hear not a sound from the spiders, though always

they are present. Earth's workings are immensely still.

Intricate and unrelenting.

I picture my mother on the far side of these mountains, arrayed in cerements

of rain. If I knew how, I'd cover her with fine, sun-woven silks,

but the distance between us is so much more than wishing, and I know

that already, even at this moment—           

Listen: the rain song.           Listen: the spider.

                            published in Walking the Mist

                            (Ashland Poetry Press)

The Lost Blue of Chartres


     By the 12th century, the deep cobalt  

     blue in the stained glass of Chartres    

     was a secret lost.

The blue was born

in an age of faith,

an age of filth.

Some say it derived

from peasant sweat,

from smears

of soot, from piles

of excrement underfoot,

or the muck tramped back

to the worksite from huts

shared with beasts.

Some scholars believe

its source was potash

leached in iron pots

to a white salt. Others,

inclined to the abstract,


it clung like mold

to the architects' scrolls—

a fur of hubris,

delusion, corruption.

Mystics will tell you

the blue was never born:

it was simply there—

in the water, in the air,

in the soil.  

Art historians insist

that a blue fog hung

in that century's lanes—

a breath exhaled

from birch tree forests.

Folktales swear

the blue was pressed

into the villagers'

very skin

that it darkened

their life-lines,

the creases of their faces,

the backs of their knees.

Or, maybe it arose

in diaphanous coils

from votive candles

to hover, cold,

in the half-built hulk.

But everyone agrees

it's gone.

Like so much else.

Like souls.

Those who long for the blue

even now

must turn to prayer:

Lord of our benightedness,

give us this day

our impure world

to make of it

what bread we can.

What legends of our own.

What stains. What light.

     published in The

Gettysburg Review

Special Pleading


     If each of us were to plead for one endangered species …

I'd plead for emerald dragonflies: skin shimmering

in arsenic green, isinglass wings, eyes

as transfixing as slaughter.

               Three hundred million

years ago, this dragonfly's precursors steered

a three-foot wingspan through Pangea's swamps,

wielding a predatory grace.

               Diminished now,

they weave their specialized weaponry through

a smoke of mosquitos carving out hollows

in their wake.

               If you love them,

you have to love them fast—or start early,

tromping the shores of shallow ponds to praise

their wingless humps

               afloat in scum.

By the time they lift from the waters,

four years will have passed in your own

endangered life.

               But it's time well spent.

Your reward will be two glorious months

of watching them scatter the light as they

hover and dart,

               mate and hunt

in ferocious splendor. Such is the fleeting use

our profligate Earth makes of beauty. But now,

their days as a species

               are numbered,

a slide it's unlikely my prayers can stop.

Even so, it's these dragonflies I'd plead for

in the hope that a member

               of whatever species

next rules earth might happen upon a single,

exquisite, tissue-glass wing lodged

in the grasses.

                         published in Lullwater Review

How to Disappear


             … like a plain, simple thing.

          Hans Christian Andersen

          The Nightingale

     Keep still so long

time comes to rest

like dust

on your shoulders.

Then, thin yourself until

it lifts from your skin

like a cloud of gnats

in a gold cast of sun.


thin further.


if you'd rather,

linger a while, clothed

in a world-colored substance

that can't be told

from the whole.

Which of you, then—

figure or ground—

is ghost?

     It's one of the long arts.

Give it time.

Let all the sweet grief

at your passing pass,


from every eye that filled

even once with your face—

you are free to be off

at light-speed:

exceed yourself.

     If you feel at first

the urge to return,

to assure yourself

of your absence,

that's fine: re-cohere

from your memory of flesh

a provisional presence.

Perch on a limb

out of sight. Sing.


your diminishment.

Sing like an echo returned

from the shores

of an old fairy tale. Sing,      

like a plain, simple thing.

     No love

need be revisited now;

no sin undone.

Release your name,

your past, your dust.

Only now it begins—

the after, the life.      

published in Cumberland River Review