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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | Bending time, form, convention

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Yellow Springs resident of 15 years, long-time poet and local treasure Janeal Turnbull Ravndal is addicted. But it’s a healthy addiction. As she states in one of the poems she recently sent:

I cannot quell the villanelle
she bubbles up at every turn
and casts her tantalizing spell…

Indeed! Nor, after reading her recent output, do I want her to consider forsaking this demanding ancient French form: 19 lines using two rhymed lines as refrains, with just two rhyming sounds throughout. It’s obvious to me that she’s mastered the form in the poem below that instantly delighted me.

Shelly Blackman listing, 1415 Pagosa Way, Yellow Springs, OH

By Janeal Turnbull Ravndal,
for Mary Isabelle Gleason, physical therapist

My present goal’s to keep these shoulders back
my belly minimized, excess chin in,
and stumble patiently along this track

with cane and temper well in hand. No lack
of spring in season or in step must win!
for now my goal’s to keep these shoulders back

— an echo from my mother, Mary Mac
who added, “Smile!” So, so long have I been
stumbling impatiently along this track

toward an erect civility. Alas, alack,
both oppositional and shy, my sin
turned slump. I tried to keep my shoulders back,

sort of, but mostly, bothered by the fact
I towered over men and boys, even
intentionally strayed off the straight back track.

Eight decades out, with help, this new attack,
attempt to straighten up from neck to shin.
My present goal’s to keep these shoulders back
and step more straight, less bent, along life’s track.

As intricately executed as Ravndal’s use of the villanelle form is, it was actually tone that first attracted me. The subject of her poetry is frequently aging, and while she never averts her eyes from the ravages it wreaks, she does so with relentlessly good humor and astute observation. She’s been at it for a while.

In her email introduction, she writes, “My 84 years of satisfying life began in New England, included a farm, N.Y.C., and two years in a Newfoundland out-port. Ohio stops include Cleveland, Wilmington, Barnesville, and now Yellow Springs.”

She also had a brief stay in federal prison after refusing to pay the fine following a protest of the Vietnam war. Her book, “From Parsonage to Prison: Collected Poems,” was published by FGC Quakerbridge of Philadelphia in 2012 and is available at the Yellow Springs Library.

Janeal has been a frequent reader during the open mic at the annual Solstice Poetry Readings and is a dedicated participant at the Peace Vigil on Xenia Avenue every Saturday at noon. She adds that she’s “worked in factory, library, and as cook, teacher, proofreader, houseparent, parent, and social worker.” Janeal seems to me a model of how to live a life of meaningful activism and service, including her poetry, which helps me accept my encroaching old age with humor and grace rather than resentment or despair.

Her opening to “Bent on Straight” — “My present goal’s to keep these shoulders back/my belly minimized, excess chin in,/and stumble patiently along this track” — is so humble, readers won’t be able to stop reading. Nor should they, given the delights that await if they continue. Soon, the author’s mother, unforgettably named “Mary Mac,” weighs in, saying “Smile!” We can imagine the childhood angst such an order must’ve engendered. I remember parents, and even other adults, during my own childhood critiquing my posture as well as my grammar. We’ve all been “stumbling impatiently along this track toward” — ha! — “an erect civility,” one of my favorite lines with its humorous double meaning of upstanding integrity as well as spinal health.

Despite the humor of the exclamatory “alas alack,” the poet begins to hint this is serious, difficult business, as “my sin turned slump” (nice alliteration). We can easily imagine the awkward teenager contorting her body in an attempt “not to tower over boys.” Typically, though, good humor prevails with the funny, rapid-fire rhyming of “intentionally strayed off the straight back track.”

I’m right there with her, paying dearly for my own sins, now that I’m, ahem, past 50. In keeping with the positive tone, she ends by referring to the “new attack” that probably got her into physical therapy with Ms. Gleason, to whom she gratefully dedicates the poem.

Villanelles end by repeating the refrain with which they began, though with a twist or a deepened context. For all her self-effacing, good-natured generosity, Ravndal seems completely serious when she says: “My present goal’s to keep these shoulders back/and step more straight, less bent, along life’s track.” Me, too, Janeal; me, too. I’ll try to emulate your upstanding citizenship as well.

Send me your poems too at

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