Thoughts of Limited Duration

Index of My Poems
      Poems of Family
      Short Poems of Life
Ancestral Poets
Favorite Poems and Poets


Up until 1996, I had never tried to write a poem. Well, I take that back. In high school I was skeptical of our teacher's poetic taste, so used random dictionary selection to find pages, then took the longest words on each page. That poem got me a solid A, and dropped the poor nun down another notch in my opinion.

Mother had always said that I could write because she and father had written. Being headstrong and arrogantly young, I was sure that my talents lay in another, more scientific, direction. It was only when I discovered the Internet with all the joy that I bring to my obsessions, that I realized that the medium was well-suited to the spare poetic style. But poetry had gone over my head, and I had no idea where to start. I bought books on the subject, but spaced out on the dry, dull technicalities. What finally freed me was an examination of poets I enjoyed (Matthew Arnold being my consuming passion). What I found was that they weren't at all slavish to the rules I had just suffered through. And if THEY didn't feel the need to fit their work within the poetic box, then I figured I had similar leeway.

That's when I started to listen to myself.

I've known from making music videos that I can internalize rhythm, so that I instinctively know what video scenes will move at what pace. That's how you get people to walk in time to the beat. Once I thought about it, I realized that I actually had rhythms of my own that had no relationship to the poetry rhythms I'd just learned. And so I wrote for my own metronome, and hoped that it wouldn't be too disconsonant to everyone else.

I write this now in 2001, six years after first putting up this site. I can hardly imagine how far I've come in that time. From wanting to find my father's poetry, I stumbled across that of my 5th great grandfather, Major Henry Livingston, and across the family legend that he had been the real author of The Night Before Christmas.

Someone must take care of fools like me, because I ventured in above my head, determined to find the truth behind the legend. In the process, I found Don Foster, a Vassar professor who specializes in the identification of anonymous text. Pulling him into my quest, I hate to quest alone, I spent close on a year and a half buried in the poetry of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. I mentally lived in a time when George Washington was spoken of in the present tense!

Today I'm probably the world expert on Henry Livingston, and not such a slouch on American popular poetry of that period either, including Carrier Addresses. Don and I had the good fortune to make contact with a cousin, Steve Thomas, whose father and grandfather had collected every item on Henry from whatever relative they could find to help them. That supplemented what Don and I had found on our own, and showed that Henry had written up till the end of his life and, now guaranteed, over the period of time in which family tradition said the Christmas poem had been written.

Don's book came out to massive attention, People Magazine showed up in my living room, and Don and Steve and I have been interviewed by network programs. I still find it all a bit amazing. But the real win isn't the publicity. It never is. The prize is understanding, and the prize is the connections that you make to other souls. And researching Henry has brought me both of those. But it also brought me something else, as well. Through this unplanned-for poetic research expertise, my husband and I were also able to return to the University of Chicago and, this time, finally find my father's poetry - the long-awaited pathway into my father's soul.

As I look around my newly discovered family of poetry writing cousins, I'm thinking that perhaps I was right those many long years ago. Perhaps the rhythms in which I write really are locked away in the genes. I like to think so, because, if so, it gives me yet another way to reach across time and touch the people of the past.

And all because I wanted a few lines of verse to go with my webpages. Serendipity. Now there's a word I should have written in that high school poem.

family tree

Ash and Eucalyptus,
Chinese Elm and common Plum;
Bark of generations built from
Lansing, Bell and Livingston.

Each spring will see them waken
To their pulsing blood-red sap,
And set upon their outstretched hand
A leaf.

A leaf.

A small and fragile promise
To the wind and to the sky
That dreams of long dead leaves
Can live again and never truly die.

To trust there will be warmth again.
To trust there will be birth.
To trust that fallen leaves
Are not forgotten on the earth.

I never knew my father
And yet I've come to know him well
Through the stories writ in crumbled leaves
And the tales our old tree tells.

He was a soldier, and a poet,
And a lover and a man
And I feel his passion flood my veins
As I hold his phantom hand.


From mother came the leavening,
From grandfather the flour.
Grandma poured her spirits in
And brother, sugar's power.
Father was a phantom
And with him went the salt.
He died when I was just a child
So it's really not his fault.
I stood beneath the branches
And asked his family tree
If all the nuts upon the ground
Were fruitcakes just like me.


Our marriage is like furniture
Whose corners weather through the years,
Each everyday collision wearing down the painful points
'Til, round and smooth,
We bump against each other easily.

In the Style of Henry Livingston's New Year's Carrier Addresses

It won't be long, two-thousand four,
Till you're escorted through the door.
Two thousand five leans on the bell
Ready to bid you the fondest farewell.

And looking back, you were a doozy,
Filled with dreams of a working jacuzzi.
Unfortunately the pool's still bare,
But with some luck we WILL get there.

How did I spend you, you timidly ask?
Mostly in melody, a harmonious task.
With Paul's support (need we say that?)
I can finally tell a sharp from a flat.

From dawn to dusk, and back again,
I lived in songs of sweet refrain -
Henry Livingston's manuscript book
Became a living, rippling brook.

And while immersed neck deep in song
Another passion came along.
Paul decided he wanted to roam.
Me? I'd rather just stay at home.

But marriage requires compromise,
So plans for a deal began to rise.
He could travel, I'd agree.
All it took was to get an RV.

The theory was good. The plan took form.
And then we were parents of a motor home!
She hasn't a name, and she's clean as a whistle.
And we're betting she's fast as a guided missile.

But for now she's at rest by the side of the house,
Waiting for spring to inspire my spouse.
The plan that he's made, so he mentions to me,
Is to leave for Nevada to attend NAB.

We're loaded for bear in our brand new toy
With DVDs, computers and limitless joy.
The pups seem pleased with the idea of travel.
Even before we hit tire to gravel.

Henry's chosen to sleep on the dashboard.
To watch out for dogs and other natural disaster.
Ilya's much smarter, his bed's on the floor,
Next to the heater, and he's starting to snore.

Waverly's not really thinking 'bout sleep.
He's sniffing the pantry and in the trash deep.
As for me, I'm ensconced in the big easy chair
With my feet on a hassock and drink in the air.

Paul's under the RV, well, he was 'fore it snowed,
Connecting the wires and checking the road.
He's packed and he's stuffed and everything fits
For a moment I thought all he'd lost were his wits.

So when the snow melts we'll be off to the races,
Or at least to the land of the gambling graces.
I'm betting we'll make it, and if we should not,
Look for us living in some vacant lot.

Not to worry, dear friends, we'll have plenty of food
And emails galore, though our slippers be chewed.
We'll find a way back, never doubt for a minute.
Our hearts in our house, not in the wheeled frigate.

So know that we love you,
We miss you, we two.
May this year bring you cheer
And our wishes sincere.

    Mary and Paul
    Ilya, Waverly, Henry
    My Kitty, Scaredy Kitty

Our Actual RV Trip


If reading were comfort, then mother was blessed
By the words of a thousand remembered events.
An old green cloth bag, Marshall Fields on its side,
Carried murderers foul and detectives quite thick
To the buses and trains and pillowed night rest and
the first morning coffee before the day hit.

Like many a habit a child learns from mom,
I carried my books with me, too, all the time.
I studied with Ghandi and watched with some dread
Graustarian villians and sad severed heads of a hero
Who thought that the times they were best.
Forgive me, but noble and dead? Take a rest!

As facts entered in, other facts entered out
Leaving knowledge as parched as a field in a drought.
It wasn't the same with my mother's dear head.
Her mind mirrored mirrors and mirrored again.

Imagine poor Holmes with his stuffed attic drawers
If his mind were a Tardis with everyone home
Saying, "I'll take that fact." and "No, put it here."
And mother conducting in ceaseless good cheer
A mad data dance never meant to refute
That the earth circles sun in unending pursuit.


The hikes that we took, when I was a child,
Wound through canyons and prairies and sweet sylvan nooks
Filled with wildflower storefronts and auto-clogged creeks.
I walked with my mother and saw with her eyes
Carrying all of her years with a ten year old's pride.
She didn't have money, we'd only have tea,
But she stuffed me with cupcakes of sweet memory.

She talked as we walked of her past college days,
Of dating young boys wrapped in old raccoon coats.
Of college professors, she knew each one's name.
Of ways that they spoke and of jokes that they made.
She remembered the girls in green chiffon gowns
Who danced on the Midway near Ida Noyes lawn.
She remembered the statue that stood in the park
Bearing centuries stone upon flat hair-crowned hat.

And each of these facts and small tales she would tell
As a gift to a daughter too young to know well
How the timeless progression of time in its day
Could forget in an instant a moment of play.
She tried to present me these gifts, but in vain,
For my attic-stuffed drawers had a hole
That the names and the places were soon falling through
Till the drawer and the attic and cupboard was bare.


Museums were playgrounds when I was a child
Hanging my heart on jungle gym bars
Of Renoirs and Rodins and even Matisse
While mother explained the curve of the hip
Of the Buddahs and odalesques playing with me
As we swung from 12th century tapestry
Into the sky of Georgia O'Keefe
And back again laughing in such fine company.

It was here that she studied, my mother explained,
Your grandmother, long before grandpa appeared,
At the Institute's classes of art and design
Of the lion and the curve and the stroke of the pen.
She studied with Taft, mother said with some pride
Though the master was gone long before I arrived
In my turn, now it's yours, to take up the brush
For genetics will conquer in gentle ambush.

This wasn't at all what I wanted to hear
Because I was a scientist cool-eyed and clear
From the tips of my fingers that typed
At the keys of computers to firm-planted feet
That walked near eyes of heaven that gazed
At Albireo's eyes blinking back blue and gold
In a canvas of black, crying "I am no artist and I know no verse."
Then I listened to silence that laughed in reverse.


Mother met father in the shadow of time
Cast by permanent stones of cathedral and bells.
The building they met in was wood, thin and cheap.
I know this because I walked in that place
Thirty years from a soldier's chance meeting with fate.
So, I guess, in some sense, I'm a child of them all
Of mother, of father, of the Humanities hall.

She was a journalist trying to find
In the day's small events
Some explaining of why
She was her,
Who she was,
A girl in the prime
Of her green salad days
Seen through sea-green young eyes.

He was a poet explaining himself
In the words of a soldier
To any and all
Who could hear with deaf ears
What it was to be young
To be strong and alive
And in love with a lady
Who saw through your eyes.


little cowboy I've searched for his poetry through microfiche files
Till the print danced before me and tears filled my eyes.
Will I ever find remnants of the cowboy he played
To remember the child in his chaps and handmade little shirt
And big hat and even the boots?
Or did father ride off into sunset like that?
And leave his small daughter to mourn her sad loss
Of flesh and of blood and even of thoughts.


Grieve, Spock,
For a Captain's footfalls broken into atoms that can never be cojoined,
Silent sounds to echo in the corridor without your door,
Inside your mind.
I reach out for your pain to ease my own,

And touch a cool, long-fingered mother's hand
That, for a moment,
Lives again within my own.


I watch my fingers type
And wonder at the words upon the page.
Are these the tongues my own voice knows,
Or language mixed with genes from father poet/mother sage?


I speak
And hear within my words
The echo now of voices stilled by time.
Treat of me gently for I am their container,
The resting place of insubstantial memories
That let these voices live while yet I do.

(Written for a video script on computer-aided reading)

When I am grown, I'll be so tall
That mom and dad will seem quite small.

I'll never bathe or go to bed
Or share my toys with brother Fred.

When I am grown, I'll ride a horse
And feed it sugar lumps, of course.
He'll have a mane of purest white
And hoofs of gold and eyes so bright

That everyone will envy me,
But I'll pretend that I don't see.

And when the summer sun goes down
Behind the hill beyond our town,

We'll gallop back through leafy gates
Because I'll know that mother waits
To tuck me in the bed I've known
And kiss me safe although I'm grown.



portraits of Mary
I am the sum total of what I know
And what I do
And whom I love.
My world is a joyful place, inhabited by memories
And laughter
And plans.


Sort the clutter of our lives in the bins of retrospection
Set in Order from the first to the last remembered joy
Shine up forgotten memories so that nothing loved is lost
Standardize with careful thought the edges of old dreams
Sustain tomorrow with the strengths learned yesterday
So that lessons learned are never gone and future proves our past.


Through black of endless nights alone I walk,
Not riven from my soul by fancy free,
Or cleft by careless thought my way to mock,
But calmly chosen choice of what's to be.
Father, mother, dead in full of age,
Ripped cold from arms a babe might try to hold;
Friends and lovers left to sorrow's wage,
While up ahead the tale lies still untold.
Where shall tomorrow's path betake my feet?
What clatter mask the silent tongues of time?
Can vision new with vision past compete?
Or lose itself in earth like sun-washed wine.
    Look forward to the stars. I can, I must!
    And in a fated love my heart entrust.


I often find myself at night
Tormented by the need
To say those things that make up me.
I use not words
But images,
Sound --
A multimedia vocabulary.


Friends provide me windows in my skin-thin prison wall
Caren and Me
That let the light of rational perspectives enter in.
And through its pane of memories and secrets sometimes shared
Reveal familiar vistas that, half-silvered, reflect me.


In soft Chicago rain, I rolled in mud
A child not knowing that those things I value now
Were taking root as surely
As the rose beside my door.


They flock for safety, hiding here
In secret refuge from the hawk,
While I, behind my bedroom blind,
Share unbeknownst their private talk.


Can you see my imaginary friends?
There's one right there, where the pathway ends.
Dressed in memories sewn without seams,
Man-made fibers stronger than dreams.


From high atop the Tower they named Babel,
I spoke in 1's and 0's to the gods,
And found within the language of computers,
A rightness that lay soft upon my soul.

First Flight

Boredom is a word I cannot learn to spell.
Each letter brings to mind another thought --
Bluejays and orioles,
A robin baby's tentative first flight.


Flying on the ground through moon-dipped mountain plains,
The racing rhythm of my heart becomes the wheels
That roll beneath my head until,
At last,
I lay at peace.


There is a pleasure in a warm spring afternoon
When reading words as fragile
As the scent of lilac in the air.
Another time I turn a page
And from it comes a dress parade of images and sounds
emptythat march across my brain
emptyin footsteps firm enough to leave behind
emptyan imprint,
emptytemporarily at least,
Of truths I should have held,
emptyor souls I should have loved,
emptyor maybe just of things I should have done.

And then I turn around to share
This sudden insight of myself,
And stop when I remember
That there's no one here but me.

Poetry is like scenery in that both are better shared.

The reason that we travel
With a loved one or a friend
To places we may not have had
The luck to be before,
Is so that when the feelings fill us up
Until we fear we could expire from the pain of pleasure's thrust,
We can turn to someone else
And in their smile of understanding
Feel the lifting of the pressure
Because we do not feel alone.


Choice, you tell me, lies before me
Even though I want it all.
Who can choose, when life's adventure
Sings its own sweet siren call?

I will sleep on beds of clover,
I will drink the honey dew,
I will choose to spend my options
And the choice I make is you.


My children have four feet and fur.
He rests on me a moment, spent from play,
And in his bright, black eyes I see his love
And feel my tail begin to wag.

Running Irish Wolfhound


Poetry On The Web
    includes links and a lovely guestbook where people drop off poems
The Alsop Review
    a beautifully laid out collection of poetry, writing and art
SPONDEE - Poems, Poetry, Poets
    John Faragher, the previous editor, was a wonderful man
Captured Memories
    by fantasticbanana
Falling Firebird
    by fantasticbanana
    by fantasticbanana
Unexpected Fall
    by fantasticbanana
Riverways and Whispers To You
    by mark40e
memories and what comes before them
    by mark40e

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Copyright © 1996, Mary S. Van Deusen