Sherry O’Keefe On Laundering Imagery

Sherry O’Keefe presents us with 4 vignettes which teach us how to launder our own imagery. This post reminds us constantly to look around ourselves, even the smallest of happenings are ones which can be spun into a poem or a story. Everything has a story. Everybody is their own storyteller.


Sugar On a Rope:

He told me potatoes were complicated. I know this is true because I wrote it on a scrap of paper and saved it in my back pocket. Some conversations later, I retrieved the scrap of paper from the lint trap in my dryer. Apparently I had laundered the words when I washed my jeans. The scrap of paper looked a bit like a former leaf, except I could see these words in faded ink: potatoes are complicated and some poems are born in badness. The trouble is I cannot remember the conversation that produced these quotes. I don’t remember anymore where these words came from.

I don’t always know what to keep and what to let go. I’m not the sort to let anything go. There are scraps of paper all over my house. For example, these are the words next to my kitchen sink: We don’t even need to talk about houses on the hill. As writers we deal with the hanging on and the not knowing when to let go.

When he talks to me, he uses panoramic strokes, coaxing me to see the big picture. And for a bit of time, I am right there with him, seeing the big picture. And in fact, I am enjoying the wide view his words offer . . . but then something happens as we keep talking. It is as though we go around a bend, chattering and laughing.

But the poetry-gene activates and the next thing I know I am on my knees, examining something minute, something telescopic.

Later, I will find more random words on scraps of paper:

sugar on a rope, failed harbor

What does it mean to want to be heard?

Little men lined up like starfish on the edge of a tidal pool

Did anything happen in 1882?

Some of these words will find homes in my poems. Some of these words will end as lint in my dryer. And (I am sorry to admit) I am not likely to remember the walk along the river, the wide blue sky, the way back to my car. I won’t remember taking these photos.



When Someone Picks You Wheat:  

Comes a time we have known before, when we feel a bit out of sorts. Maybe the rain gutters on your house are threatening to rip off your eaves? Probably you are reluctant to climb the ladder and address the problem? Maybe you are feeling like Cali’s new black tire (what happened to the pink one?!) lost between the storm and the front door and no one has noticed you are missing? It may be I am not speaking about gutters and eaves, doors and tires. In an antique aqua blue vase next to my bed is a bouquet of wheat stalks. A few years ago someone read a short story I had written about wheat fields. And then a few went for a drive along the Hi-Line, thinking to take a photo of the crop and send me the photo. Others thought to stop and pick some stalks. Someone parted with a favorite vase. When I realize I am feeling invisible, or under-powered and not willing to climb ladders to save my eaves, the wheat stalks cheer me on. And when I say wheat stalks, I mean to say wheat pickers.


First published by Free Fall Magazine in Calgary, Alberta.

He told me once that wheat was patient. If I needed
help with waiting, I should come to this farm field. Between

these stalks of sway and pause, and the horizoned Little Belts,
white pelicans flash and fish the river breaks. I trail the red rock

bank on Jeep, a buckskin mare. We climb dried-up gulches, thread
through bursts of orange paintbrush and bitterroot blooms

of baby-girl-pink. The sky is lonely when it is solid blue- this is why
it follows you. He called it the tag-along shadow. Two strips

of jerky, half of a water canteen. Three ravines to the backside
of Crow Pond. Jeep chomps along the edges of the field, I slip

the red blanket from her sweaty back. The west wind hushes shhhh,
think softly. Gray green yucca, white cottoned milk pods tickle

my bare legs. The more earth touches you when you are young,
the stronger you stand when you are ancient. I circle the rings of teepee

rock, spread the blanket down. Many palms have smoothed
this woven fabric. Jeep swishes her tail once. She’s not my horse-

this is not my dream. He told me once he knew where ghosts come
from. I take in his breath when he exhales. He’s been here forever.




One year my Christmas tree stayed in its stand until March before I hauled it outside to the curb. Twisted girl that I am, there are fluctuating moments in my life when I recall that year fondly. Maybe what I mean is painfully. That year I thought life had trespassed me. My brother talked me through those times. Told me when we learn everything we need, fits inside one Wal-Mart bag, then we’ve learned a liberating lesson. And now, some years later, we re-talked this in the cab of his 1960 Dodge.  Brother, daughter, dog and me. This is the brother who is good at restoring things. Once this pickup gets back to what it was originally meant to be, he will start on something else.

We were on our way to walking his latest dog along the river. This one had been rescued hours shy of being put down at the shelter. Eight months of constant care, she was a new and different dog. How far could I walk, he asked.  Five miles? Eight? He had things to show us. He stood along the river bank, pointing downstream. From here to there and back?

Yes. Sometimes the best path means losing sight of the river for awhile, a bit of trespass might be involved, he said.

Slow talk, long walk –we watched his dog chase gophers. This is the brother with some of the best story-telling ways. It’s all about pacing with a few teasing touches, he explained to my daughter. The longer we walked, the more she grinned – she knew where we were going. No matter which part of my family we spend time with when we visit Back Home, she’s discovered we end up way, way downstream looking down and across the water to where we (not she) grew up.

signsstartWe aren’t allowed access to the other side anymore. The power camp is gone, but if you squint just right you can see the water fountain and the apple orchard and the birch tree we used as second base. The first canyon where we ice-skated on the ponds, and the second hill where we flew kites. People from town drive out to this point, sit in their cars and take in the sight. Unless they get out of their cars and step across the barrier fencing they miss what the river is about. One hundred yards beyond the no-trespass sign is when you start to feel the power of water falling.





Don’t look directly at the shadow:

A day after Robb arrived for her annual visit, they piled into Dad’s pickup – Mom in the middle with my dad driving and Robb to my mother’s right. In the back, no doubt, was Roadey, my mother’s one-hundred-pound dog and a cooler with water and juices, carrot and celery sticks. Maybe even some of my mother’s cupcakes. Road trips without Mom’s food in a cooler haven’t happened yet.

Robb has made the annual Trip Back To Montana for at last fifty years. She is my mother’s best friend. By now, this threesome must have driven every back road and seen all there is to see Out Here. For those of you who have been reading this blog for a few months, you may have noticed how many times my dad’s landscape photos have shown up in here. He never tires of our vast landscape nor of  taking photos of the same plateaus, buttes, rock formations and faint wagon trails he visits on these drives.

shadowsThis trip, however, Robb asked my dad to stop in the middle of the gravel road. Take a picture of the praying hands she suggested in her back-easternly way. At first Dad couldn’t see what she was referring to-on account of the shadows along the ridge. Then he realized because of the shadows, the praying hands were possible to be seen.

At 12:51 A. M. this morning my BlackBerry buzzed on my nightstand. I rolled over in bed, knowing I had a new message from my dad (he doesn’t sleep at night). He had sent me the above photo and a quick note about what he’d learned. When we let shadows do what they do best, we see what they suggest.

What I like best about good poetry are the shadows between the words. Often the poem that vibrates inside me is the one which only suggests what might be revealed. I live for the gradual realization we experience when we let shadows work their tricks on us.


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Sherry O’Keefe, a descendant of Montana pioneers, grew up in a power camp on the Missouri River. Residing now near the Yellowstone River, she is a poetry editor for IthacaLit and an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. Her work can be found in Camas: The Nature of the West,, Art & Document  and many other journals. Her most recent collection of poetry, Cracking Geodes Open, was released by Aldrich Press in 2012. Visit her: