I discovered the work of Marsha Truman Cooper when her poem “You Had to Be There” won third prize in our 2004 Winning Writers War Poetry Contest. Since the judging was anonymous, I was quite surprised to learn that this searing account of a young man’s tour of duty in Vietnam was not autobiographical, so convincing was her first-person storytelling.
Cooper’s poetry chapbook A Knot of Worms was published this summer by Finishing Line Press in their New Women’s Voices series. These quiet poems are charged with a sacred attention to healing the wounds sustained by our bodies and ecosystem. In the aftermath of war or illness, the human spirit finds wholeness by recovering our common bond with whales, dragonflies, and yes, even worms. She kindly shares two sample poems below. “Ashes” was first published in Poetry Northwest.
She will not do
what you expect, not even
if you make love to her.
She can never tell
what she has learned,
no matter how safely
she rests under your arm.
But one day, she may open a jar
she brought from that place.
She will say
it holds the burnt bones
of hands, just the hands,
of people she has known.
Though it cannot possibly
be true, you’ll believe her.
You’ll pour out
her pieces of calcium
as if they were uncut jewels.
You’ll sort through them,
wondering which bone
was the finger of a thief,
which held a violin,
and how the tiny ones
could have belonged to anybody
but a child.
Then you will see
why she can be so positive
that we are all joined.
There will never be a way
to separate these friends.
After the Man Who Counted Dragonflies
died, he opened his eyes and discovered
he was still in Oregon, his research tent
still pitched in a forest of pines
near the edge of a snow-fed, mile-high lake.
He took off his clothes and walked
across the beach pebbles hot as coals,
splashed into icy water— a contrast which,
if he did say so just to himself, felt heavenly.
Apparently, it was still July. A blue darner
dragonfly touched down on his index finger.
He saw the indelible ink dots he’d used
to mark the animal, a pattern recorded
by date for an insect whose life cycle
ended long ago. He wanted to ask him,
a male he’d decorated, the question
that had deviled him in life. He raised
his arm skyward, but before he could speak
more of his subjects joined them. By tens,
then hundreds and finally by thousands
his friends flew to greet him. Nymphs
he had saved from extinction cracked
their shells, split open, crawled up a reed
and darted into summer. They all whirled
around the man, a blue darner wind. Then,
they landed in a mosaic of iridescence—
their wing tips touching randomly in what
looked like sunshine— while his spirit
skittered over acres of their humming surface.
As the sun lowered, he realized that there
might be darkness. At last, he thought,
they would show him what nobody on earth
could find— where they go at night.