"My friend's body is a brown leaf," writes Maureen Eppstein in "Going Dark," a poem from her recent chapbook, "Earthward."
" ... the fierce flame of her will/refuses to surrender./ It's not death's darkness she resists/but the loss of a self transfixed/by what is beautiful."
That same enthrallment with life she witnesses in her dying friend is evident throughout Eppstein's collection of 26 poems. Beguilingly simple, founded in close observations of nature, these poems unfurl to reveal the writer's keen sensitivity, sense of humor and clear acknowledgment that every life ends with death.
On Friday, June 5, the former Palo Alto resident and Stanford University employee will return to town to read from her new collection. She'll be joined by fellow poet Henri Bensussen, also formerly of Stanford. Both longtime attendees of Palo Alto's hallowed Waverley Writers -- a free, monthly poetry reading founded in 1981 -- Eppstein and Bensussen separately retired to Mendocino County, where they're each active in the writing community. Their Palo Alto visit marks more than 15 years since their departures -- Bensussen and her partner left the region in 1999, Eppstein and her husband in 2000 -- yet both are well-remembered by area poets.
Janice Dabney, who shared a writing group with Bensussen and Eppstein and worked alongside Eppstein both on the Waverley Writers Steering Committee and at Stanford, spoke of both writers as "very good people" and recalled not just Eppstein's poetry but also her humanity.
"She was very supportive of me being a gay person," Dabney recalled. "She made a point of putting her money where her mouth is, which is a good summary of Maureen: She's not a person who sits idle and spouts philosophies; she gets out there and acts and makes the world a better place."
Those on the Mendocino Coast speak in equally glowing terms about both women and their work. Norma Watkins, secretary of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and creative-writing instructor at Mendocino College Fort Bragg campus, explained of Bensussen, "Henri was my student in the past and writes this delightfully quirky prose and poetry. She has a very odd and wonderful imagination so that when you begin reading one of her poems, you never know where it's going to go."
Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, Karen Lewis, said of Eppstein, "You can tell from her work that she has a daily, connected presence in nature. Her nature metaphors are especially remarkable."
Lewis also described a new project of Eppstein's: a collection of short essays based on her youth in New Zealand and her immigration to the United Kingdom. Those essays can be found at maureen-eppstein.com.
Bensussen, too, mines her own past for material. In "Chimney Rock," a poem from her new and first chapbook, "Earning Colors," birds of prey serve as metaphors for partnership and a departure point for a meditation on separation and divorce:
"Peregrine falcons nest in a hollow/under the cliff's rim. They mate/for life, unlike us or elephant seals."
Later, she shows herself, standing alone as birds swoop overhead:
"Vultures hunt the dead, veer close/when they notice me. I stare them off. Pose -- /Still Life: Woman in Love, Once."
Both Bensussen's "Earning Colors" and Eppstein's "Earthward" are published by Finishing Line Press, a small publisher based in Georgetown, Kentucky. Bensussen explained that she entered the manuscript in a poetry contest with Finishing Line, and though she did not win, they offered to publish the chapbook anyway.
As for the collection's title, "When you send in a poetry manuscript, it has to have a thread or theme," she explained. "I realized I had quite a number of poems centered around the idea of color."
Like Eppstein, Bensussen has a deep connection to nature, one fostered by her studies in biology and many years of birding and gardening. Upon moving to Mendocino, she explained, "I became immersed in the natural history of the area, and also fascinated by how people interact. Often, someone says something and it sends me off on a poetic journey."
"Earning Colors" is full of evidence of such journeys. Friends' stories and strangers' cast-off comments pepper the collection, giving the sense of a writer moving through a crowded room, picking up on snippets of conversation. In "Blood Test," it's an "overly friendly" nurse whose question about the origins of Bensussen's name sends the writer into reflections on "disruptive history,/as tubes fill with dark pulses of my life."
Life and death draw close in both Bensussen and Eppstein's work.
"Earthward," Eppstein's third poetry chapbook, is "really about the cycles of life and death," she explained. "It's centered around the poem 'Going Dark,' which was written for a friend in New Zealand as a memorial. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for 40 years, gradually losing more and more of her use of her limbs. Toward the end of her life, we would have conversations about how she was afraid of losing the self that could be moved."
The self that can be moved is on full display throughout "Earthward," and the scenes that move the poet are often those drawn from nature. In "Osprey with Fish," Eppstein writes with simple power of three lives: the bird, the fish and the woman who watches their flight:
Undercarriage of leg and talon
joins two bodies similar
as life and death conjoin
in a continuum
Huge wings slow over forest,
a fading cry.
"Earning Colors" and "Earthward" are available at Books Inc., Town & Country Village, Palo Alto, and online at finishinglinepress.com.
What: A reading by poets Maureen Eppstein and Henri Bensussen
Where: Waverley Writers, Palo Alto Friends Meeting House, 957 Colorado Ave.
When: Friday, June 5, 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to tinyurl.com/l4lvwgh or call 650-424-9877.