Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 11, 2016

Mulberry Leaves and Apple Blossoms

Somewhere or other I’ve seen tallied accounts of all the sights, sounds, and smells an average person might encounter in one day. And our job as humans is to sort them through the enormity, decide what matters, or contend with what seems to mark us whether we wish it would or not. Today I’m working with a to-do list, but while driving I notice trees that make May New England’s the pinkest month. While waiting for an appointment, I take out my laptop. I’m revising, but with one eye on the little girl amusing herself with a straw and her starting-to-get-cranky younger brother, rocked by the mom who’s having a conversation. Ah, that girl is turning the straw into a sword.

Life gives us much to smile about in the moment, even when the general shape of a day or year seems tough. Writing also puts forests of imagery before us, and for a poem, we really have to de-clutter and hone, looking for what will stay in front. Just as a morning is more than our agendas, but what catches us as we proceed, writing a poem means our attention shifts from our first mission to stray words.

I recently spoke to someone about writing poems about real people for Finding Wonders. Sure, I began with biography, but research extended to nature and science books, travel guides, history tomes and more. I write poems because it pushes past biography the way the living are not our work or even our home lives, but what we see and hear, where and when we live. Much of my work begins after I have notes on what made someone famous. I look for what houses looked liked, what people wore or ate. Reading other people’s poetry is part of the process, too, keeping my eyes sharp, my ears open. I accumulate a lot before I sift. Some of what I find may add detail that makes someone seem more alive. Some may shift to metaphor, even ones that shape poems or the book.


Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd’s wonderful biography of the artist and scientist gave me necessary information, including a note that Maria’s uncle worked in a silk mill. Most is lost about Maria’s childhood as the daughter of an artist in 1700’s Germany, but I had to think that this curious girl would visit her uncle at work, and see moths and chrysalises that were unspun to collect their silk, perhaps starting Maria thinking about metamorphosis which she’d later record in paintings that would help change science. I found some brief accounts of silk mills from her time and place, and more extensive nineteenth century manuals written by mill owners in my Massachusetts neighborhood, which established the process wasn’t so different.

Maybe Maria would take her uncle strudel wrapped in linen – what else was eaten for breakfast? Was her hair braided, too? I learned that barefooted children gathered mulberry leaves for the silkworms to eat. I left the crumbly-covered volumes for nature books to look for the shapes of mulberry leaves, the color of berries. This was a lot of reading for about half a poem. But even the many words I left out shape the poem.

Then it’s time to drop off the library books. And this is what I see.





  1. Great observations! and beautiful photos. As writers we need to observe – sometimes even before we search for/ research the words.

    • Yes, observation is at the heart, opening imagination. Good luck with your words, Liz!

  2. Looking forward to reading Finding Wonders, Jeannine! I love Maria Sibylle Merian’s work–it’s so intricately detailed, and Chrysalis is an excellent biography. I also really loved Margarita Engle’s picture book, Summer Birds, which first introduced me to her amazing work! Congrats!!

    • Thank you, and I’m so happy you loved Summer Birds and it led you to Chrysalis, which is one of my favorite biographies of all time. Not only a great woman at the center, but I loved the way Kim Todd included some of her own process and the attentive writing of both poet and scientist.

  3. Looking forward to your new book, Jeannine. And, now I feel the need to get Chrysalis, too, it sounds fascinating.

    • Thanks, Tara. Chrysalis is one of the exceptions to my general sense of many biographies for adults being padded. She takes on a fascinating person and gives a context of the science of an interesting era, with views changing, and her prose is elegant. Reading about hidden women takes you through some not always fascinating books in search of glimpses, but this was all pleasure.

  4. I so appreciate your revelation of your journey to filling out a character and finding a poem. Such a clear discussion of gathering then making.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I took a research break, but now have a stack of books on the porch table…. xo

  5. Oh Jeannine, such riches here! And I’m excited to read Finding Wonders. Thank you for sharing your observations and heart with us. much love, Lorraine ❤

    • Lorraine, thank you for your sweetness. Sending love back!

  6. Ah trees and all their wonder. I just took a drive into Long Beach (California) and the jacaranda trees are in the middle of purple eye-assault. I used to live there and when they bloom it is glorious!

    • Oh, jacaranda — even the name casts a spell! Enjoy!

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