Every December, City Pulse invites local poets to join a year-end celebration of their art, accompanied by images of holiday lights.
We never know where the light will lead us, but as this holiday tradition enters its fourth year, we know the results will be warm and illuminating.
The Poetry and Lights tradition began in 2020 as a response to the lights-out angst and panic of that first pandemic year. Unsurprisingly, the theme of lights in a dark time proved to be an enduring one. Loneliness, tragedy, fear and darkness didn’t suddenly descend to Earth in 2020, nor will they relent anytime soon. Poets were not limited to this theme, but most of them gravitated to it like moths.
Choosing light as a theme led to unexpected delights. (Including just now, when I noticed the “light” in “delight.”) Lights pack a powerful impact as both a real phenomenon and a symbol. Light illuminates all doctrines and faiths and every flavor of awe and reverence, sacred or secular. Our poets, like the members of our community, celebrate light in many ways.
“Candle flames proclaim a faith revealed,” poet Robin Pizzo writes. Other poets pay tribute to starlight and to the solstice, the “sunlight growing in brightness to illuminate paths to our next chapters” (Mary Fox), and even to the dual nature of light, both “fully particle and fully wave” (Ryan Apple).
Sarah Carson surprisingly pulls the story of Christ and astronomy into the same orbit, like two disparate guests thrown together at a dinner party. Prompted by probing questions from her 6-year-old, she thinks of Mary, the mother of Christ, and “all those strangers, led to her manger/by a distant gas fire.”
Of course, light’s power comes from darkness, and you’ll find plenty of that here, too. Anita Skeen describes a chilly night watching for meteors near Los Alamos, New Mexico, with five friends, sharing stories of loss, illness, accident and soured marriages while a “river of stars,” the Milky Way, flows silently overhead.
Echoes of a faraway war run through two of this year’s poems. In her mind’s eye, Nan Jackson surveys “desert sands” and “toppled buildings” and ducks into “the stale air of tunnels” where a child waits for light. Dawn Newton grapples with TV images of suffering babies she “can’t unsee.”
Thoughts of winter snow find Cruz Villarreal thinking of “those in need.” He suggests that “if spring is kind, if we are kind, and both arrive in time,” kindness will “bring relief.” Wayne Richard Pope strikes a similar note, evoking the “new light and color” of lilacs and daffodils that are “one winter away.”
Other poets bypass the general theme to give us glimpses into their lives, with a lemon tang of reflection. Connor Beeman takes us into a hospital coffee shop, where they have an “hour to kill” between grim doctor’s appointments. Sensing time slipping away, they immediately regret using the word “kill.” Jay Artemis Hull offers a vivid yet ambiguous image of a close physical encounter that teeters deliciously between love and aggression. Cheryl Caesar finds comfort in stories and images from her childhood, wishing the reader a “smiling face” to ward off the scoffers who “mock” and “demand a rewrite.”
Fox and Ruelaine Stokes return us to the light as they decorate trees with a bittersweet, defiantly hopeful fire in their eyes, despite loss and advancing death.
Pizzo’s “Nostalgia” paints a colorful mosaic of starry nights, “stardust trails,” “sugar kisses” and a feeling of faith and joy she thought was lost amid the stress of life. In Lisa Bond Brewer’s loving tribute to her father, the memory of his “post-smoke” peppermints leads her to reflect on the “fragments of his wisdom” that have lit her way in life.
Read these poems with an open mind and generous spirit and before long, a fresh candle or two will flicker to life in your world. Deepest thanks to the poets who shared their lives, thoughts and verbal artistry so generously.
It’s the last day of school before Christmas
vacation. Scholastic books have come in. Atop
my stack, a round-limbed gingerbread cookie
made by the teacher just for me. This weekend
I will stay with a neighbor, as the raging
ruler of our house will be away.
There’s this feeling I get when I know
something’s coming to me, wrote my eight-year-old
self in the book with the tiny gold key.
Time opens before me. Soon after I will learn
the word anticipation, and later, advent.
But already I feel it, the quiet turn toward celebration,
as two calm days stretch like a desert night sky,
with books guiding me like a star, and a round
smiling cake saying, This is what you are:
no misshapen freak, but perfect as the child
in the manger. The household Herod will break
into the diary, mock my words, scold,
demand a rewrite. But I carry them still, and share
with you on this holiday: a card, a carol,
a wish, a prayer: that you may
have peace like the blue depths of the sky,
the faithful light of your own lodestar,
and a smiling face repeat to you each night:
You are perfect and beloved, just as you are.
May the gentle kine enwreath you as you sleep,
warming you with their hay-sweet breath.
— CHERYL CAESAR
Cheryl Caesar teaches writing at Michigan State University and serves as secretary of the Lansing Poetry Club and president of the Michigan College English Association. Last summer, she won first prize for prose in the “My Secret Lansing” writing contest.
When we come to the other side
of solstice, singing together,
candles in hand,
we do not give much worry
to wax melting on fingers,
the choice of soy or paraffin,
or even to the paradox
of light’s dual-natured being:
fully particle and fully wave.
But witness shadows
slingshot back and stay
past the perimeters of glow,
how each one keeps confounded watch,
quivering on the twilight edge
like some stray cat or wounded beast.
How light came into darkness,
and darkness did not comprehend,
and did not overcome.
— RYAN APPLE
Ryan Apple is a music professor at Great Lakes Christian College and serves on the board of the Lansing Poetry Club. His chapbook, “Stars and Sparrows Alike,” was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020.
The five of us mix up
the stories from our lives
with myths of The Big Dipper
and The Pleiades, accounts of flying
saucers we think we saw.
I, who have never seen
a shooting star,
sit precariously tilted back
in my metal church basement chair,
eyes ransacking the stellar clutter.
Everyone sees one
but me. I see the glow far off
from Los Alamos,
the blinking lights of two planes
ferrying their nervous cargo
on the river of stars,
the Milky Way
marbling the dark silk
of night. We sit wrapped
in blankets to keep out the chill,
jutting up like rocks
on the surrounding mesas.
We have no campfire, no fear
of those we share the night with,
no chants centuries old.
We talk about friends
lost along the way, how illness
and accident flourish,
how good marriages go wrong.
Our flashlight beams
punctuate the talk, trace Scorpio’s arm
or Cassiopeia’s chair from where
she looks down
upon five miniscules of light
streaking across the hills
like shooting stars.
— ANITA SKEEN
Anita Skeen is a professor emerita in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, where she is series editor for the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize. She is the author of six volumes of poetry.
6th grade, Livingston, Montana
I am trying to transform
a large, flat piece of cardboard
into a candle.
Wielding a long brush, I dip
it into red tempera
make a bright wavy line,
rinse the brush, dip it into green,
make a series of big dots,
then yellow, then black.
I will be a candle with six other 6th graders
in the Christmas play.
We will sing, “It is better to light just one
little candle . . .”
My nose is two inches away from the cardboard.
I am trying to add yellow
to the black parts.
“When the day is dark and dreary
And we know not where to go. . .”
The colors of my candle are a jumble
but I will hold it up in front of me
I will open my mouth, join my voice
to the voices of the other five candles.
“All you need is a tiny spark,” we will sing.
December is cold and dark in Livingston.
The purple mountains form high walls
around the little town in the valley.
The days stretch out like snow.
When I sing, the notes are not in the right places.
My best friend Beverly will tell me my voice
is bad, I’m getting everyone off key.
I should mouth the words, Beverly will say,
and not make a sound.
I don’t want to hurt anyone’s ears,
but I want to be a candle. I want to sing
In my throat, my voice is angry at Beverly.
On the day of the play, I hold up
my cardboard candle, open my mouth
and sing—oh so softly
“. . . if everyone lit just one little candle
what a bright world this would be.”
— RUELAINE STOKES
Ruelaine Stokes is a poet, spoken-word performer and teacher. She is the author of “Jar of Plenty,” a 2022 collection of poems, and co-organized the “My Secret Lansing” writing contest and book project in 2023. For decades, she has worked to nurture a growing poetry community in Greater Lansing.
As Far As the Stars
It’s almost Christmas
when the conversation turns to starlight:
How close, my 6-year-old wants to know,
would we have to be
to get burned?
& I am so eager to reassure her
it won’t happen
that I forget the job of a mother
is to preheat, to air dry—
to make each next thing possible
regardless of the gravity,
I think of Mary,
all those strangers
led to her manger
by a distant gas fire.
If she held her own boy that first night
knowing one day he’d demand
she leave the temple,
she chose not to use the years
in between to convince him
he’d make a fine carpenter,
begging him to choose
a safety school,
to write her phone number
in his underwear.
No, he told her to go,
and she went,
disappeared from the story
until it was time to collect his body.
The same stars above her then,
that burn above us now.
No closer. No farther away.
How close would we have to get to touch them?
It’d be a long journey,
I tell my daughter.
Farther than anyone has ever traveled.
But if you decide to go,
I’ll go with you
if you want me.
Or else I’ll stay here,
the porchlight on.
dinner in the microwave
for when you return.
— SARAH CARSON
Sarah Carson is the author of “How to Baptize a Child in Flint, Michigan” (Persea Books). You can read more of her writing at stuffsarahwrote.com.
Post-smoke, Daddy, always savored a peppermint
its scent a soothing balm.
Each night, he leaned close, kissing my brow
weaving encouraging words into a tapestry.
Your beauty glows from the inside out.
Intelligence and humility are superpowers.
Only bow your head and knees in prayer.
Love is a verb.
I’d collect fragments of his wisdom,
tuck them into the pockets of my mind
golden scraps saved for later years,
when the world sought to quell the brilliance.
Dimming would not come from Daddy
But from children on the playground,
intimidated bosses and unworthy friends.
I delve into the recesses of memories
resurrect his words
now stored securely in my heart.
His words emerge gleaming
like the Christmas star
illuminate my path forward.
His breath escapes
a sweet, cool comfort,
his touch a timeless gift,
I tell my children,
my light shines because of
a peppermint caress,
placed upon expectant brows.
Their light shines even brighter.
His legacy endures.
— LISA BOND BREWER
Lisa Bond Brewer, a proud Jersey girl who now resides in Lansing, Michigan, is the vice president of corporate communications for UST HealthProof, a global healthcare technology company. Lisa is an accomplished writer, having published poems in Essence magazine, Literary Mama, TimBookTu and other publications. Married to her college sweetheart, Lisa is the proud mother of three daughters and is also a grandmother.
Tis The Season
Red green and white.
Tis the season
touched by a spirit,
the spirit of giving,
of sharing goodwill
like a winter storm
shares its snow.
Tis the season
that brings expectations
of fun and joy,
and maybe better days
for those in need.
Tis the season
when the weather of our humanity and kindness
is active, like rapid wisps of snow
that swirl like powerful cyclones
along the sidewalks of our soul
spurring generous deeds,
laden with kind words that stretch out
like thick blankets of snow
to protect what lies beneath
what waits for spring
to bring relief.
That blanket of snow
that protects the tender things
the things in need
that lie beneath,
the things not really seen,
the things that need to bloom,
if spring is kind,
if we are kind,
and both arrive in time,
to help the kindness bloom.
— CRUZ VILLARREAL
Cruz Villarreal is a published local poet with a writing degree from Lansing Community College.
Poem for Dark December
The orange flame of autumn
Has flickered from sight.
The trees black and lifeless,
The land, dark as night.
But new light and color,
Are one winter away,
From April’s bright daffodils,
And lilacs in May.
— WAYNE RICHARD POPE
Wayne Richard Pope is a fervent Lansing booster, photojournalist and snap-happy documentarian always on the lookout for a photo opportunity. He studied photography at Lansing Community College. Putting pictures and words together is his lifelong joy.
I hold my cargo pants to my nose
and inhale. I smell like outside.
Like sweat and gasoline and asphalt
and all those acrid city odors
that have a whole new meaning with you.
Rumble of an engine beneath us, intimacy
to tuck thighs around you
loose hands on waist to link us together–
one unit of acceleration and inertia–
the way we only are when we’re dancing or riding.
My whole body is tired, tingling
with phantom vibrations,
remembering the ride physically.
I want to push you against a wall sometimes,
have fun with it.
step-a-step, rock step – combat swing
kicking out at the others dancing
in our tiny living room.
A wink as you cede control,
some joke about a switch
as I take us into the matador,
stealing a glance as we fan out.
Winding down for the evening,
an arm hooks around a throat;
a thought just barely makes it
to a murmur: “Is this weird? Sometimes
I just want to destroy you.”
— JAY ARTEMIS HULL
Jay Artemis Hull is rumored to exist.
I still get that feeling, I hope you do too
Here’s a reminder to focus on what’s joyful and true
A quickening flutter of angel wings
From the mystery and magic the season brings
Ancient tales of stardust trails
The distant sound of trumpet’s scale
Across a brilliant, starry night
Enduring wonderment takes flight
From Emmanuel’s arrival for all mankind
Blessings and miracles, witness the divine
Connected hearts longing forgiveness; healed
Candle flames proclaim a faith revealed
The gift of giving brings anticipation
A return home conjures sublime jubilation
A child’s giggle reflects twinkling eyes bright
Sugar kisses send their little wishes a’flight
That feeling, I thought was lost to life’s stressors
Is still there despite unwanted pressures
In the Capital city with a little try
Community explored share many reasons why
Giving hearts and helping hands
The season’s compassion echo love’s command!
— ROBIN M. PIZZO
Robin Pizzo is a writer, educator and small-business owner of PolishedPages. Yet nothing tops the joy of being Ron’s wife and the mother of Raven, Isabella, Isaiah, Joseph and fur baby Rocco. Follow her @PizzosPages on X.
In December, sadness for those missing
hovers near my heart—
a mother’s hand no longer reaches for mine,
a husband’s lips no longer
reassure me I am loved,
friends’ merry eyes no longer
glimmer a promise of adventure.
So many gone to pay their coins to Charon!
Still, this first day of December I hoist
a small tree into the bay window,
decorate its artificial branches with bulbs
and colored lights then smile at the stuffed dolls
I stow beneath its limbs—a homage to days
long-gone when small children
attended my Christmas merriments.
Still, their ragdoll features somehow witness my faith
that the future holds more than mourning.
Shining in that window, those tree lights will be enough
to spark some charity from my checkbook,
send me one early morn to bake a few Santa cookies,
and spur me to invite old friends to holiday lunch.
whether with Menorah or tree or candlelight—
we will bid farewell to the old year
and smile our welcome to the small pulses
of sunlight adding to each day—
growing in brightness to illuminate
paths to our next chapters.
And we will feel blessed
we still have this time together
and a path to follow.
May the season bless you, too,
with the cheerful comforts
of friends, family, and memory,
and may you, too, find joy and hope
in the expectation and anticipation—
the swelling light reaching for tomorrow.
— MARY FOX
Mary Fox, a Detroit-born poet, resides in Portland, Michigan. In 2016, she published “Waiting for Rain,” a poetry chapbook, with Finishing Line Press, and in 2018, she co-edited “Promptly Speaking,” the fourth Writing at the Ledges anthology. Her 2019 chapbook was “Reading Lessons” (Finishing Line Press). She promotes poetry and oral presentation with several Lansing-area organizations, including the Poetry Room, the Coffeehouse at All Saints Episcopal Church and Writing at the Ledges.
Working with Clay
Some Wednesdays, I travel expressways from one side of town
to the other, weaving between lane closures in evening traffic,
ferrying a young girl to clay class near the edge of the city, where factory
meets farmland, industry meets quiet fields of cows.
Once she enters her class, this artist learning
the language of clay with nimble fingers and watchful
eyes, intuition fermenting, I find a couch and practice Spanish:
yo quiero, tú quieres, ellas quieren.
On the drive back, the artist drifts off to the rumble of roads. Autumn
colors fringe the sky, a sunset hanging, ready to drop. At home,
the television squawks out harsh news of the day: Babies.
Premature Gazan babies, white diapers accenting tender skin,
babies in rows, at angles, together in large beds, some
wrapped in green, others merely diapered, bodies warming bodies amid green
rolled bolsters and bumpers. Los bebés, los niños. Juntos.
I watch with furtive glances, peek up from my Duolingo screen only to
look away, hide in Spanish words, afraid to digest another morsel
of loss. I can’t unsee the small bodies, unhear the peril embedded in four
syllables: in-cu-ba-tor. I can’t relinquish my longing for bolts of
green cloth to swaddle babies, envelop them in warmth.
Weeks later, on a city street, I snap a picture of the artist with her
creation: A friendly clay dragon, wings outstretched, captured
in a photo within a display case. The creature wears
a crown of jewels glinting green, its backpack carrier at the ready.
I hug the artist and want to say more, but how to explain that she’s
given the dragon enough strength to break through the display case, reach
skyward, and fly? Enough strength for transporting blankets of green
to swaddle babies, warming their air with beating wings?
— DAWN NEWTON
Dawn Newton is the author of “The Remnants of Summer,” a novel, and “Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages,” both published by Loyola University Maryland. She has published short fiction, poetry and essays in various literary magazines.
today, a doctor’s appointment
to prelude a doctor’s appointment.
lately, I’ve been spending much
of my time rehabilitating.
getting better, slowly,
or at least not getting worse.
in occupational therapy, they say
the swelling is down by .3 centimeters.
they also mention this is within
the measuring error, but
“progress,” they insist.
the nurses downstairs tell you not
to be afraid of the surgeon.
you are not afraid of him—you
just wish you were more trusting.
you wish you trusted your doctors, trusted
this system, trusted your body
to get better.
no one can decide
if the surgery is minor
or major, if the recovery will be
easy or painful—
when you will get your body back
or at least
an hour to kill between appointments,
a break at a coffeeshop with stiff tape
crossing your forearms,
and all you know
is that you wish you’d used
a kinder word than kill.
— CONNOR BEEMAN
Connor Beeman is a queer writer and winner of the 2022 Ritzenhein Emerging Poet Award. Their first chapbook, “concrete, rust, marrow,” appeared last spring from Finishing Line Press.
Her grandfather prays with us
and he asks that we not
he tells us to let ourselves smile
when we see the red flash
of a cardinal in a backyard tree
when we watch our children
chase after a chipmunk
rumpling leftover leaves
just before the snow
her grandfather prays with us
and he asks that we not
but send our joy aloft
high enough to infiltrate the clouds
he prays that the clouds carry our joy
up over the rooftops
of Detroit apartment blocks
out across the waters of Lake Erie
and past the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
that our joy gather strength
above the rush of Niagara Falls
he asks that we release our joy
thick enough to be carried
all the way across
the Atlantic Ocean
that we make it steady enough
not to lose its footing
on the Rock of Gibraltar
we send our joy
with reminders of birdsong
to carry it over desert sands
and between toppled buildings
to remember a child
leaving her home
we send our joy
with reminders of sunshine
to carry it below the buildings
and into the stale air of tunnels
to remember a child
who waited there
— NAN JACKSON
Nan Jackson grew up with poetry, thanks to her mother. Retired from teaching mathematics at Lansing Community College, her academic loves also include world languages and geology. If you look very closely, you can still see her sidewalk poem, “Shiawassee Street Bridge,” as it fades into the concrete on Lansing’s River Trail.
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