A Tribute to Joan Colby

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One of the great, unexpected pleasures of editing a magazine is becoming friends with some of your poets. Many of these writers I now know I was unaware of previously or knew only by reputation.  One who I had been reading, with great admiration, since I first started publishing on a regular bias back in the early 80’s, was Joan Colby. I bought her book The Lonely Hearts Killers when it first came out in 1986 and have read it several times since. But, as I discovered when I took over the day job in a tavern I was working in, the old guy Irish regulars I inherited and came to know and love, would begin to die off one by one. I missed them all after and the days were never as lively or as fun after they were gone. The next generation of my regulars were all my age and they too are beginning to die off. As one of them said not too long ago, “We’re the old guys now.”
I make the analogy since Joan has left us, the poetry scene will never be the same now that she’s gone. There was no comments more astute, more cogent, on the poems in each issue than Joan’s. Hers observations on my personal essays were the ones I looked forward to the most.  And, of course, no issue of Misfit would be complete without a poem or three of Joan’s. To say that I got to know and value our friendship, would be an understatement.  Joan was a bedrock upon which all our magazine flourished and it has become evident that I was by no means the only one who felt that way about her guidance, encouragement and observations. 
Within days of Joan’s passing, I received two unsolicited, heartfelt tribute poems to Joan. I will include both of these at the end of this tribute and in the body of the magazine. I also received many e-mails from poets and friends in the days that followed her passing. I will include a few as samples, including those by my cohorts on the editorial board.  A Facebook posting of Joan’s passing, on my personal page, received well over a 100 responses. Joan was loved by many and missed by all.
Her work was multi-faceted, intense, personal and learned in so many genres that can only inspire amazement. One in particular, Ribcage, winner of The Glass Lyre, Kithera Book Prize is the kind of book that should be taught at the university level but never is.  Her last two books, the heartbreaking tribute to her husband of 60 years, The Salt Widow, (Future Cycle Press) expresses the inexpressible and The Kingdom of Birds (The Poetry Box) continued her deep understanding of the natural world and of metaphorical content.  Joan was one of a kind. We are all better off from having known her and we all mourn her loss.

Brief Comments from the Editors

"Joan Colby was a distant neighbor but a close friend whose warmth and compassion was matched by her skill as a writer and poet, a talent exceeded perhaps only by her love and affection for her family and for the horses which were so much a part of her life."  --  Gene McCormick editor Misfit

"When the world lost Joan Colby, I lost a mentor and friend. Describing herself, she quoted Shakespeare, 'She be but little, but she is fierce.' Her poetry was honest and unflinching, breathtaking in its execution. Her absence leaves an unhealing wound. She is missed."  -- Jennifer Lagier Editor Misfit

Brief, Unsolicited Comments to Misfit Regarding Joan’s Passing

I see that your publication had a strong relationship with the late Joan Colby, a woman who opened a door to the world of poetry and welcomed me and so many others inside. This may sound insignificant but, given the rough sledding involved in first writing poetry and then subjecting it to the slings and arrows of marketing, it looms large indeed.  David Spicer

As they say of good teachers, Joan was a nurturer. When she saw talent -- even undeveloped talent -- she made a point of encouraging it, bringing it along, speaking up against the din of rejection all beginning writers hear and take to heart despite themselves. The point is, Joan believed in writers until they started to believe in themselves -- a necessary step, really. For that reason, I will forever be indebted to her, and for that reason, I will miss her voice and her kindness.”  Ken Craft

I had the good fortune of working closely with Joan Colby in a private online poetry workshop for over 10 years.  When Joan's daughter told us that she had passed, I had to write something in celebration of her work and who she was to me.  Robert Strickland

Tribute Poems:

August, 2020
For Joan Colby

The plow lines end
At a thin horizon
That has taken you
Into its quiet sigh, you
Who have wielded words
As beautiful as evening
Falling on fresh haymow
In the fields of Plato Center.
They swept wide and true,
A lover s scythe swung
With precision. We come
And we go. Our morning
Coffee will still taste good,
Our days continue, filled
With what we yearn to know.
This year, as fall slowly begins
To darken a midwestern sky,
We will know that August
Can sometimes be
The cruelest month.

 Robert Strickland

Elegy for Joan

         Joan Colby, 1939-2020

Smaller than the jockeys who rode
your prize thoroughbreds, you didn’t
shovel anyone’s shit: in a workshop, you
used the word obese, and a fellow poet
called you a fat shamer. He didn’t realize
he dodged a major ass-chew
from a woman half his size.
Too gentle with this colt, you educated
him nicely about bad manners.

The workshop disbanded,
but you and I remained friends:
two of a kind, we lived to write
the next poem—sonnets, narratives
with five-syllable words, sestinas—
each of us more prolific than Bukowski.
Your polished poems out-brightened mine
like a spit-shined brogan shows
a scuffed loafer its flaws just by its sheen.

A Renaissance woman--wife,
mother, grandmother, union steward,
pickup truck driver, gardener, caregiver,
managing editor—you blurbed my
book with high praise. Off to the races
then, Joan: we wrote long e-mails
every day, never a harsh word.
Damn, I miss you. You told me about your
storm-crossed marriage, its money quarrels.

And your two daughters—accomplished
women—chips off the old block, I thought—
your son, who advised you how to trade
your old guns for a new one. Six grandchildren,
especially the girl who resembled you
and who’d inherit your ten-thousand-book
library, plus your German Shepherd Vesta.
You wrote me, too, of your visits to the clinics
where you drove Alan for his blood treatments.

Then he faltered, fell, and died. You told me
about your life with and without your husband,
wrote seventy poems: the first time
you met, his leaning down from a ladder,
winking at unimpressed you. His love for the Cubs
and the Bears. Your discussions about books
you’d miss. What do you want? he asked
one day when you’d both had enough.
I’m buying a farm, you answered. He nodded.

You rejected the old adages, Joan:
You’re strong (I don’t know about that),
You’ll live another ten years (I don’t want
to without him). Your heart ached
like a sick bird’s, you didn’t want to live
but did: writing one, two, three,
four poems a day that packed punches
sixty-year marriages survive. You worked  
like you knew you had little time.

You didn’t stop until cancer grabbed your lungs,
and you wrote, I’ve treasured our friendship.
I treasured it, too, Joan: your strength now mine,
I think of you, know I’ll write until I drop
like a fumbled ball. Now, I imagine you, in bed,
your family around you as you talk to Alan
already on the other side. Other side of where?
you ask. No other side. World, I’ve had enough
of you. My book is done, and so am I.

David Spicer


A Selection of Joan Colby Misfit Poems:


Wood turtles stamp the ground
Like infuriated children to lure
Earthworms, a special treat
Along with slugs, snails and  other slimy
Delectables. I feel like stampingArtwork by Gene McCormick
When I observe how he has dug up
The tulip bulbs from a long-established bed,
Scarlet and golden every May,
Because he says, their bloom is brief.
Then there’s just these greeny spears
As if warriors left a jungly mess.
He wants all-summer color,
Perennial substance, asks me
If there are varieties of tulips
That bloom through August.
Listen, spring
Is defined with tulips, crocus, iris,
Jonquils, birdsong for gods sake.
That bracelet of velvet tulips.
Black tongues silenced by ignorance.
I think of a neighbor who cut down
A two-hundred year old white oak
So an above-ground plastic pool
Could take its place. The people
Who claim climate change is
A myth, who explain
What god has in mind, at least
For them, who entertain
Notions of trapping wolves and wild
Horses, who lower the educational bar
So everyone can pass, so the world
Can be ruled by idiots. So I can rant
Like a madwoman: O wood turtles
Come out and drum
The land senseless, until the worms
Rise in a slithery mass,
Until everyone understands
The necessity of tulips.

Gun Sestina
Grandfather was 40 when a gun
Resolved his life. A land dispute. He shot
The rancher whose son then killed
Him. All for what. Grandfather left six children
And a wife in the Uinta mountains.
They had to go on with their lives.
It was just part of life.
Father was nine when his first gun
Was presented. Far from those mountains
Of his birth. Excited, he shot
A bird, then like any child
Was dismayed to find that it was killed.
He never again killed
Anything. Said that life
Was sacred as fatherless children.
When he graduated, his mother gave him those guns:
Dueling pistols, a pocket watch bloodshot.
All he had of his father’s lost mountains.
In the house at the foot of the mountains,
My cousins and I killed
Time. Our eyes shot
With risk. Risking our lives
Maybe as we stared at Papa’s gun
Hidden in a cigar box. We were children.
There are no children
Now at this flatland farm. No mountains
But we have a gun.
The Browning unused since you gave up killing
Pheasants or ducks. Since their lives
Like ours, absolved of shooting
Not even the raucous New Year’s shooting
Of our neighbors. Think how children
Every day risk their lives
Walking in the shadow of citied mountains
Or simply being anywhere that killing
Can happen. Anywhere there are guns. Guns. Mountains
Of ammunition. Children’s lives.
Children being killed. This endless shooting.

Chain Saw

The red chain saw lying in the grass. I remember
Finding you face-down in the peony bed,
The ladder fallen beside you. You weren’t dead.
Now, I hike the back pastures all the way to the
Woodlot. I can’t find you. Can’t hear the rumble of the John Deere,
Only the spring birds in their raucous courting.
My cross-wired knee shortening my stride. Behind
The barn, I find you bending
Over the burn pile with a load of limbs
From the chokecherries you’ve thinned.
At our age, we should wear bells
Like cows plodding from the meadow.
When the old mare broke her hip
She leaned on the fence with the black mare
Holding her up. We slowly guided them
To their bedded stalls. The vet said
It’s time. Who will say those words to us.
Who will listen. 

The Nanas 

I printed the commanded letter
To the distant grandmother I’d met
Once when I was two and didn’t
Remember, though I remember
Other things from that car trip. My father
Reading me Little Black Sambo or singing
Dixie and Old Black Joe as he headed back
South to his boyhood. My mother exhaling furiously,
Her cigarettes filling the Dodge with a miasma.
Later a cousin with blonde curls and a sand pail.
A lizard on a wall.
My mother referred to that grandmother
As Nana T. An imposter. My real Nana
Lived six blocks away in a house
Across from the slag pile.
She crocheted by the window and gave me
Peppermints. I liked to play
With her button jar and listen to her sing
The Wearin O the Green and Peg in a Low-backed Car.
My real Nana called me Joanie the way
People who liked me did.
That other grandmother, Nana T.
Didn’t like Catholics, my mother said.
I would be going to St. Felicitas though
My best friend Nancy would not.
Once on a Friday, I ate a baloney sandwich
At Nancy’s house. The first meat
Of my revolution.
Nana T. never called me anything. She wrote
Letters to my father that began Dear Son.

Her only surviving boy. Her five daughters
Each annoyed her in a separate fashion.
I learned that Nana T.’s husband
Was killed in a gunfight. How her own father
Rode with Morgan’s Raiders, then roved the west
Trailing wives and children like chum
In dark waters. Nana T. shook off the Mormon
Suitors, then went back south
The way we did when I was little.
When my father was 9 years old,
Nana T. gave him a gun. He shot a bird
And was sorry. She subscribed to New York
Papers, told him he’d be someone. Her family
Of generals and preachers.
Bible readers, whiskey drinkers, horse racing men.
She rode cowponies when she was young in Texas.
Nana T. died never knowing
She was Nana T. In my letters I wrote
Grandmother. She wrote my father
That I seemed to be an intelligent girl.
The real Nana never made such judgements.
She loved me as she loved the white dog Laddie
Or all her ladyfriends or the Sacred Heart
Of Jesus or poor Stella Dallas on the radio,.
Years later, sorting through the boxes
Of photographs, I pulled one out—
A woman on a porch looking serious.
It’s you! My husband says holding it up
Before me like a mirror. On the reverse, in pencil
Margaret Wise Taylor.  Nana T.
The Nana who never could forgive
My father for wedding that Yankee woman.
The Nana
Who never wrote back to me.


And the Last Two from Summer 2020:

The Dog in Service
When you come home from hospital
To a hospital bed and hospice,
Our dog discovers her true
Vocation. She guards you
From visitors. Shepherds them
To the door. Sits at the foot
Of the bed keeping watch.
Should you try to get up,
Restless and confused, she
Barks for me. Nudges you back
To safety. Who knew
She had this talent, all the years
Of threatening the FedEx truck
Or the squirrels on the driveway.
She’s found purpose, not so much
A guardian angel as a warden.
Stay, she barks at you. She
Who has learned to obey
A repertoire of commands.
She licks your hand.
Good boy. Don’t try
To stand all by yourself.
She shoulders me to your side.
Sits, serious as a general.

Yoked as yearlings, they learned the pattern
Of near- ox, off- ox, how to haul
The wagon. When one dies the other loses
Value. Half of a team is no team.
I felt like the off-ox
When you died. Yoked for 60 years,
At first we fought
For our own patterns.
Untrained, we resisted
The compromise that makes a team.
In Chinese astrology,
We were both tigers.
Faced off fang to fang,
Body to body.
Years interpreted us.
Each of us less, each more.
What a conundrum. Our flesh
Conjoined. We made new
Generations. Imagine that!
It’s what humanity does,
Mammals and fish,
Invertebrates. All of us
Magic. You and I stayed
Within the shafts
And learned the sanctity of pulling
Together in the same direction.
Now I’m lost
Hauling my sorrow
Not knowing where to go or how.