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Fifty-one Houses, Fifty one Dreams 2011
25” x22"
by John Babcock

Photo by Linda Babcock


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Debra Spencer

Ode to Leo Kottke

Leo arrives on a stage containing
a chair, a mike, two guitars.
He nods to us, then plays
a riff of steady motion
like the wheels of a train.
A landscape springs up
and begins to slide backward—
open sky, good speed on a smooth road,
fragrant pines whisking past.  He says,
“Who wouldn’t want to do
this all day long?” 
Songs go by like mountains,
like meadows, parking lots. 
He plays William Powell and a song
about Pamela Brown. 
“Alexander King,” he tells us,
“opened his mouth
and erased the United States,”

but as Leo plays
more rivers and valleys sweep past us. 
Once in Los Angeles, he says,
he saw a man play a banjo
made from a possum. 
Once at Reed College,
Leo was mobbed by dogs.
He doesn’t travel in straight lines 
but jumps from era to era, coast to coast.
When he stops to tune
he mentions the Bristol Sloth,
a chess player who took
two and a half hours between moves. 

Leo sings Last Train to Chico, then
Julie’s House, “a place I used to live.” 
He sings In the Bleak Midwinter,
raising up stained glass, a church. 
He once rented a car with GPS, he says,
that spoke in the voice of a beautiful woman. 
He followed her directions and found himself
lost in a forest.  Her voice said,
“Destination unknown.  Please return
to point of origin.”He plays us

out across the Great Plains
in a tune like a hot-air balloon.  “Onstage
you don’t think about anything else,” he says. 
“It’s like being dead,
but without the hard parts.” 

Someone asks for Tiny Island but instead
Leo sings Corrina Corrina
and we are transported
to the interior of Leo’s heart,
where there are signs
of an old fissure.  He sings,

“I walked around the world
upon the bottom of the sea,
’cause I can’t breathe
when she talks to me.” 

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

         after the painting La Trahison des images by Rene Magritte

A picture of a pipe
is not a pipe, although
if you stare long enough

you might smell smoke.
Under the plum tree,
when we’re not singing,

we pick and eat plums.
We sing Mille regretz
de vous abandonner.

Neighbors only listen.
Singing, we taste the song.
It is a plum.

         for Merry Dennehy, Jonathan Crump, Clay Cambern

Sitting In

We’re in debt, we’re in love, we’re
fighting with our neighbors,

our kids are sick, rent is due, but we     
don’t care.  The guitarist’s fingers

slide along the thin sharp strings,
the flutist splays his lips

against a cold mouthpiece.
We join in.  Though instruments

abrade flesh, twist sinews,
toughen skin, the music carries us,

exiles of one native tongue,
onto the water.           

For this the cellist
ignores his broken foot,

the harper flexes a sprained wrist, 
the fiddler shrugs off her scars

and draws the bow.  Let’s 
play the verse again, the one

that pulls the paean                                
up out of our bones.  Let’s sing

once more the wanton chorus,
the headlong refrain.            

The Rower

         “C’est l’aviron qui nous mene en haut.”*    
         Quebecois folk song    

In the empty early morning
when salt air rubs the skin,
the rower lifts down his boat. 
It’s heavy, hard to balance as he walks
with bare soles on splintery planks 
past the harbor goose, under the constant
petulance of gulls.  The boat’s hull
grates down the slip into the sea,
and he splashes aboard.  His hands
find their old places on the oars.
Muscles yoking his shoulders, he rows
down the harbor, feet against hull,
hat gathering sweat.

He knows the only way to mastery
is the long haul.  He can’t see where he’s going,
only where he’s been, turning from time
to time, neck torqued, spine skewed,
body lunging forward, jerking back. 
He is a mutable drop in the fluid world
where new waves break
on shores constantly altered
by the sameness of waves.
The water that buoys him
drags at his oars. 
Harbor docks and boats go by
as he assesses weather, wind.
He listens to the waves. 
He considers the thrill
of rowing out to sea alone,
where the illusion of free will
is hard to maintain.  But
he plays his part, caught in the flow,
weaving his strokes with the swells. 
The more graceful his effort,
the more effortless it feels. 

No storm on the horizon.  Then
no horizon, only fog in a sky
so fitted to sea there is no seam, and he rows 
from an ocean starred with fish
into a sky swimming with stars.             
His oars hover, his boat
hangs in the globe’s curved dome,
a wake behind him as he rows
through a zone that curves away from time.


*It’s the oar that guides us to the high country.


From her mother, Debra Spencer learned to swim when she was three.  Her father taught her to body surf and to make sand-castle turrets from dribbles of wet sand.  She fed fish to seals at Marineland, saw the embalmed Winnie the Whale at Hermosa Beach before she burst into flames, and rode the Ferris wheel at Pacific Ocean Park.  Sweating in school buses and classrooms in the San Fernando Valley, she vowed some day to live by the sea.  And now she does, although the water here is much too cold for her to swim in.

Wallace J Nichols
Micah Perks

Danusha Laméris
Debra Spencer
Gary Young
Jake Young

John Babcock

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