Poets of Franklin County

‘Ripples on the water’

Poet celebrates new release with YMCA swim, reading

Lozenges of light fatten and stretch across the water’s surface as participants in a water fitness class move slowly and deliberately at the far end of the Greenfield YMCA’s pool, sweeping foam dumbbells through the water or raising and lowering their legs. Each movement sends strands of light bouncing and breaking and reassembling into mesmerizing shapes.

This is exactly the kind of phenomenon Greenfield poet and Lesley University professor Mary Clare Powell began to notice after the YMCA replaced the pool area’s glass brick windows with real glass and the dull, diffused light she’d been accustomed to seeing was replaced by a dazzling array of effects.

“You’re bored out of your mind, you’re just swimming back and forth, back and forth. It’s absolutely routine,” Powell said of the daily laps she swims to keep healthy and fit. “And so the mind — or whoever, whatever — begins to notice everything.”

She noticed the other swimmers, her companions in the pool. She noticed icicles in the cracks between the louvered windows. “But the light coming in the window was what really attracted me,” Powell said. Early morning light from the sunrise in the east window would grow, Powell said, “And then there’d be pools of sun on the pool and people’d be swimming through them.”

As the sun rose, “Ripples on the water would make dancing on the walls and would move from here, over to here, over to here.” Powell pantomimed the light’s progression with her hands, smiling in remembered amazement.

When the sun got even higher, stronger light streaming through the windows created what Powell described as, “A sort of military row of blocks of intense light, down, down, down like that on the far wall. And then there were the rainbows!”

As she swam lap after lap, Powell glimpsed rainbows created by light striking through the beveled glass edge of the windows. Swimming toward the shallow end of the pool, she could see the blue/purple end of the light spectrum; turning to head back toward the deep end, she’d see the orange/red end. Sometimes, on the bottom of the pool, she’d see an intense rainbow band.

“And then one day I said — and this is the weirdest and most unusual part — I said, ‘Well, God is here.’ And now, I’m not a church member or anything but I am a person on a spiritual path. I thought, ‘God is here. All of this is God.’ And I was so embarrassed. I thought, ‘How did God get here?’”

Her notion of God, Powell clarified, was not a clichéd or narrowly defined God. “It’s beyond religion. I don’t know if it’s spirit or cosmic energy or what. I had the sense that this energy was everywhere and if we just paid attention we would see it everywhere.”

Spurred by her thoughts and observations while swimming, Powell began to write a series of short, grammatically simple poems. Her new collection, “Box of Water,” offers the poems in a format that pushes the definition of a poetry book’s form. Twenty-two poems are printed on individual cards made of satisfyingly thick, pearly paper in shades of silver, off-white and pale blue. Each card is roughly the size of a large postcard and is embellished with a simple graphic element added by master letterpress printer Ed Rayher.

Rayher, also a poet, has been printing award-winning letterpress books for poets and artists at Swamp Press in Northfield since 1974. It was Rayher’s idea to print the poems on individual, digitally-printed cards and to package the stack, with its pleasing letterpress frontispiece, inside a gold foil greeting card box with clear plastic cover and gold elastic tie. The motions of opening “Box of Water” are those of opening a gift. And receiving the language of the poems, both plain and generous, imbued with Powell’s clear-sighted awe, is to receive a gift. Each poem, small on its own, offers itself to the accumulating meaning — much as each lap accumulates into the whole of swimming.

Powell will be launching “Box of Water” with what her press materials jokingly refer to as a “big splash” at the YMCA pool on Sunday, March 17, at 1 p.m. Powell will begin by swimming a lap, then climbing out of the pool to read to her audience from various spots on the pool deck. A reception with refreshments will follow in one of the Y’s social rooms. You do not have to be a YMCA member to attend the event. You may want to bring plastic sandals or flip-flops as street shoes are not allowed on the pool deck.

“Box of Water” is available from Powell’s own Extra Virgin Press. Contact: mcpowell@lesley.edu

Trish Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press.

To submit a book, mail it to Franklin County Poets, The Recorder, P.O. Box 1367, Greenfield, MA 01302, attention, Adam Orth. Or, drop it off at our office, 14 Hope St., Greenfield.

If you have readings coming up, please tell us. Questions? (413) 772-0261,
Ext. 276, or e-mail features@recorder.com

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