Bastille Day

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Retrospect, with poems by Susan Lilley and Claudia Van Gerven, plus a peek inside the new issue with thoughts from contest winner George Drew.
6 minutes


Last week was America’s Independence Day. July 14th is Bastille Day. It commemorates the day in 1789 when French rebels stormed the Bastille, a Paris prison; it held people who’d been arrested without a public reason given or without the power to appeal the arrest. Just over a month later, the French equivalent of our Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, was proclaimed.

Here’s a poem not about political independence, but about a sense of personal independence, the freedom to dream. As we get older, we know that most dreams don’t exactly come true, but when we’re younger, we have every reason to believe they will. Here’s “Sundays” by Susan Lilley.

My parents sometimes loaded us up
for a drive through the lonely heart
of Florida to check on my dad’s
experiment as a part-time citrus baron.
Death Valley was a small, low patch compared
to the vast waves of orange groves stretching
as far as you could see from the family station wagon.

Nothing flourished here except volunteer watermelon
vines, fire ants, the occasional rattlesnake, and
gopher turtles the size of my brothers’ Tonka trucks.
I liked how Dad would smack his old white
tennis hat against his thigh and mutter
God dammit as he surveyed the scrawny
trees in their haphazard rows.
Reading Nancy Drew in the backseat, I usually
refused to get out of the car
for the lackluster stroll around the sandy
acre or so, a mine field of killer ants just waiting
for a kid in flip-flops to kick their little kingdoms.

Dad might have felt better if he knew
that one day they’d all fail, even the big growers —
Crescent City Belle, Jolly Roger, Flamingo,
Red Cloud, Silver King.
He’d miss the smell of orange blossoms every spring,
and in winter the burnt cake perfume
that citrus refineries blew
into Florida evenings for three generations.

When he bought this ruin,
he must have been dreaming of those old pictures
of Mom as the Orange Blossom Queen, posed in
an off-the-shoulder frock on a little white ladder
among lush branches dotted with flowers,
healthy fruit on the way.

Sundays, Susan Lilley, from Passager Issue 61.

The 2023 Passager Poet is George Drew. He said this about his work:

“I’ve always loved the dramatic monolog as a genre, a la Browning, Frost, Eliot, Lowell, Shakespeare, and so many others. And I’ve written my share of them. But the lyric is, of course, musical, and for me is really an important element in poetry.

“I think my need to write poetry emerged from a deep love of language engendered by my Southern-tuned ear and my desire to make music. Not having any actual musical training or talent, other than a brief fling with the guitar, I ultimately turned to poetry, and over the years that has proven to be my “instrument,” my music, for good or ill, and as it turned out, a wise choice. Both the rich Delta blues tradition that I was raised in and also oral tradition are the natural inclination of my poetry toward the musical.”

The 2023 Poetry Contest issue, featuring an interview with George Drew, as well as some of his poems, will be out in early fall.

A few weeks ago was Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. And one of the highlights of the week was a show by the Navy’s Blue Angels precision jet fighter squad. We’ll end this edition of Burning Bright with one more poem about freedom, “Blue Angels” by Claudia Van Gerven. She wrote it “for Faith with whom I have exchanged a poem a week for 25 years.”

We were a squadron of two: two housewives
in the cockpits of our ordinary lives, flying —
as ordinary lives do — at supersonic speeds.

You would roll off to
L. A. or Chicago or depression. I would
do barrel rolls in place losing my equilibrium.

We would criss-
cross, chatting merrily into the radio
or weeping. We never noticed our own death

defying feats, the unprecedented angles,
the near collisions. You did fly byes over Christopher’s
grave, your brother’s, I wandered

off like Amelia Earhart, trying to
get back to the place before
the miscarriage. None of these maneuvers

were planned. We couldn’t fathom
how each loop de loop, each
high speed decision would resonate,

affect the air pressure in each cabin,
change the very sky
we flew through.

Claudia Van Gerven’s poem “Blue Angels.” The two poems on this edition of Burning Bright came from Passager’s 2016 Poetry Contest Issue. The 2023 Poetry Contest Issue will be out this fall. To subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.

For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.