Natalie Bartlum Poems


Two poets writing in a third voice best describes the collaboration of Phyllis Natalie Tickle and Margaret Bartlum Ingraham. Our joint work is published under the name Natalie Bartlum. The national debut of a Natalie Bartlum poem in print occurred in the Winter of 1981 in Volume I, Number 1 of Cumberland Poetry Review, a publication founded by Donald Davie. Because of his stature in the literary and scholarly worlds, Davie was able to solicit and publish new work from some of the finest American and international poets and critics of the day. Such well-known, or soon -to-be, poets as Richard Eberhart, William Stafford, Donald Hall, Diane Wakowski, Louis Simpson, Mark Jarman, Sherod Santos and John Hollander had poems appearing beside Natalie Bartlum’s “Aubade” (which I will place last among these early poems) in that inaugural issue. Only two other women were among the 29 contributors in that volume of the journal.

It was because of Davie’s respect for Phyllis Tickle that such an unusual submission as a “collaborative piece” under a pen name was even allowed to be considered by the editorial board. The journal’s stated policy referred explicitly to “the writer” and “the poet” as an individual contributor. In this perspective, Cumberland Poetry Review was representative of a trade that, at the time, hindered our ability to be published widely in literary journals; in its willingness to grant an exception, CPR was itself exceptional. For that, Phyllis and I remained grateful and found much encouragement.

Although “Aubade” was first to be published, it was not the first poem that Phyllis Tickle and I completed in the voice of Natalie Bartlum. “Ordinary Song” was.



I sing of the mountains that sing in me

the cadences of plaintive earth

and only give you back the land

that framed the valley of my birth.


I fed each day on mountain thyme

and nightly cradled with the quail.

I woke to walls of laurel leaf

and raised a morning song to hail

the line of sheep who grazed

across the valley rim.


I learned by heart the ancient sounds

of bird and pine, of stream and fawn,

waiting to hear spring waters clear

below the stones they played upon,

the litany of earth.


I sing of the mountains that sing in me

soft harmonies I’ve known from birth.

I only give you back the land again

and the plain magnificence of earth.


The life of this “Ordinary Song,”our first Natalie Bartlum poem, turned out to be anything but ordinary. A portion of one stanza is inscribed on the black granite wall of the Pathway of History in Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville, TN. There it will publicly commemorate the east Tennessee mountains we both loved– and, as long as it stands, it will also sing of the writing partnership of two friends simply who wondered what might happen if they allowed their individual voices to speak together as one. This poem also was literally transformed into harmony and song when Phyllis and I worked with composer Enrica Ramey, who had studied at Juilliard, to create “Mountain Psalm” that was debuted at the Harvest Music concert in Memphis in November of 2002.


The five poems that follow were initially published between 1980 and 1985 and represent only one phase of the poetic life of Natalie Bartlum.




You could say

only the breezes

make the edges certain


rippling a skin of lily pads

like the scales of a lizard

stretching to sun.


The green roll of surface

swaying white blossoms

is the only sign


that hidden water

is drawing you

to witness a place


your legs become divining rods

treading the shoreline

in dark faith.



You go forward

sink slowly away

pulled silently


toward the deep center

before you surface

rising through flowers.


On the other side

we find you

resting on the cool ground


in a place of certain borders

your skin glistening

in new light.



You did not see the flock

masked by evening

drop from the sky

to the pond beyond the trees

but in the morning

found the geese

feeding in the stubbled fields

and counted them:

the same five birds miraculous

to land again

in so precise a resting place

bringing color to the solstice.


Two days, three nights this time

before the current changed,

signaled flight,

the tight formation

you plotted in your eye

to number them,

mounting to take the clouds

past all accounting

until they come again.



Near that town

barely two miles east

where the land

turns itself to Texas

before the line,

she gave herself to the ditch,

to the concave promise

of the half grave.

A small doe,

beige as the dust,

she left the cooling of her flesh

to the cooling earth

of the still, March dusk.

Impatient in leaving

her eyes open,

she forgot her stare

would summon the crow

to land and test the age of death,

to begin the ancient feast

that finally completes

the halfness of a ditch.



After the storm

straining the solstice,

it could have been

any two days’ light

hanging behind the Spanish moss

where skydark water

circles the marsh grasses

like a tide the moon refuses

to take back.

The creek is a lost undertow

only the arched fish knows

to pull toward its mouth.

Black as live oak’s shadow,

the tongues of water

are still surface legends.

As midnight edges from the marsh

an egret, lifting lightning, shrieks

to beckon flight wings will not follow

as if the call were enough;

earth slips her moorings

back into the night.



Every morning early

before the wrens,

the elderly rise and go

places no one knows of.

Cheekbones red with rouge,

sensing if they walked

too plainly into life,

out and in,

their boldness would offend.

And so they go,

frail fingers, fragile skin

warmed in the secret wind

they follow,

rising on a breath

thin enough to flit and bend

and turn, victorious

in the end,

to light

beyond the places

of the wren.