Joan Lacombe's words are on refrigerators all over Aiken.
Lacombe, Aiken's Poet Laureate, writes short poems, kind words or thoughtful sayings from famous authors in calligraphy on small cards and shares them with the cashiers at Publix. Those encouraging words often find a place in their kitchens.
“This is what I call my pocket poetry,” said Lacombe, sitting at her writing desk, set in a bay window looking out on azaleas and a Japanese maple in her front yard. “Every time I go, I have a little poem to hand out.”
Lacombe found this “nice thought” from Cicero, the Roman orator.
“It says, 'If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you will ever need,' and that's true,” Lacombe said.
Another came from Plato, the Greek philosopher: “Always be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”
On another card, Lacombe wrote a short poem about faith: “Accept what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.”
Lacombe even found words that inspire during the novel coronavirus pandemic on a tea towel: “Fighting COVID-19: Wash your hands. Say your prayers, for Jesus and germs are everywhere.”
The cashiers asked Lacombe to sign the poems she writes, and one is making a special collection of the poet's works.
“One lady said I keep them and I'm going to make a scrapbook for my granddaughter,” Lacombe said.
Lacombe, who grew up a coal miner's daughter in Dupont, Pennsylvania, didn't start writing poetry until she and her late husband, Harvey, moved to Aiken from Connecticut in 1995. They joined the Academy for Lifelong Learning at USC Aiken, and Lacombe, who had taught business at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, signed up for a course to learn how to write a family history.
“I'm the last in my family, but there are grandchildren; and they will never know what their family was like because there's no one to tell them,” Lacombe said. “So I wrote the family history for them, and I thought, well, what else can I write?"
That's when Lacombe started writing poetry.
"I just like it," she said. "That was in 2001, and I've been writing poetry ever since. I have books of poetry. Some are under this desk. Some are in the bedroom because everything I write I save and make a copy of it.”
In 2011, Aiken resident Roger Brock saw one of Lacombe's poems in the Aiken Standard and contacted her.
“We got together, and Roger said let's start a group. I may have mentioned something that sparked the idea, but Roger made it happen; and we got the Aiken Poets going together.”
Today, 23 local poets meet monthly at AnShu Asian Cafe to share their works. The group has published several anthologies of their poems.
Brock, with the support of the Aiken Poets, nominated Lacombe to be the city's Poet Laureate, and Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon made the proclamation during a celebration of Poetry Month at the Aiken County Historical Museum in April 2017.
“I knew it was going to happen, and I told the mayor I had a poetic response,” Lacombe said. “He said that he would have expected nothing less.”
Lacombe said she was honored that her fellow poets trusted her to write poetry that would support Aiken.
“It was a challenge and a tribute at the same time, and I do have to thank them for their faith in me that I could do this,” Lacombe said. “They've been supportive, although sometimes I think they write better poetry than I do. There are some lovely, very talented poets in the group. And yet they chose me, and I have to fulfill that responsibility to honor them as well.”
Lacombe often writes about veterans and has written poems for Flag Day, Memorial Day and ceremonies remembering men and women in the armed forces at the Aiken County Veterans Memorial Park on Richland Avenue East.
Lacombe wrote “Peace in Our Time” about the end of World War II and is working on a special poem for Memorial Day this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and the Pacific.
“Those soldiers who came home and those soldiers who didn't come home, who were buried where they fell – we will not forget them,” Lacombe said.
Lacombe has read her poems at the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony, which places fresh Christmas wreaths on the graves of veterans every December. She dedicated one of her poems, “Arlington,” to Tony Venetz Jr., who was killed in Afghanistan. His father, Tony Venetz, coordinates the Wreaths Across America project in Aiken County.
“I wrote the poem 'Arlington' with Tony in mind,” Lacombe said. “In fact, I had tears in my eyes when I wrote it because I wrote it as if he were my son. I'm proud of that poem.”
Many of Lacombe's works feature Aiken.
She wrote a tribute to Maid Marion, the historic white oak that stood on Marion Street between Colleton Avenue and South Boundary for years until heavy rain and gusting wind brought it down in October 2015. Because of its massive sizes, Maid Marion was the No. 1 white oak on the list of South Carolina Champion Trees that Clemson University maintains.
Lacombe celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Aiken County Historical Museum with a poem in February 2020. The work is now a part of the museum's permanent collection. The museum displays a new poem by Lacombe on a poster every month.
Aiken City Councilwoman Gail Diggs read Lacombe's poem “That's What I Like About my Hometown” at a State of the City of Aiken address.
“She sent it to Mandy Collins at the Aiken Chamber,” Lacombe said. “Mandy wrote to me and said she liked it so well and asked to use it when working with people who are looking at moving to Aiken.”
Some of Lacombe's poems are personal. She has written about taking care of her husband, who died in September at age 96.
“It was comforting be be able to write poetry about what I went through. I shared it with the hospice nurses, and they wanted copies of my poems,” Lacombe said. “They said what I wrote could be helpful to someone else going through the same thing and to know that they're not alone in this. There are other people who have experienced the same thing, and they got through it.”
Recently, one of Lacombe's poems received national attention. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson read one of her poems that appeared April 6 in the Aiken Standard and had it recorded in the “Congressional Record,” the official record of the United States Congress. In a letter to Lacombe, Wilson said he wanted the poem recorded “so that we may always remember your encouraging words in the midst of this National Emergency.”
“I was surprised and honored,” Lacombe wrote in an email. “It's nice to know that he reads the Aiken Standard.”
When she's not writing, Lacombe, who started lessons at age 8, plays the piano every day and is the organist and a parishioner at St. Gerard's Catholic Church.
“I still love to play. I'm thankful for that,” she said. “Harvey would always say play the piano. I would not have a house without a piano.”
But Lacombe usually is writing, often scribbling ideas on little scraps of paper that she later puts together to create a poem. She said she does her “best thinking in bed” but gets up to jot down her ideas.
“I tried that without putting the light on one time,” she said. “I wrote something, and it was so good. And then I thought of something else, and I wrote over what I had written and couldn't read either one. Now if I have a thought, I will get up and go into the kitchen with the little night light on and will write it down. It you do not do that, it will never come back to you. It's gone.”
Lacombe said poetry – even the shortest poems like the "pocket" poems she shares with her friends at Publix – can express big emotions.
“It can be short and simple, just like those little cards, but they can mean so much,” she said. "They can change your attitude, let you feel there's hope. Poetry can do whatever you want it to do. It can say I'm sorry. It can say I love you or I care about you. It can say so many things. I think poetry makes you feel good. It makes me feel good writing it.”
The following poem was written by Joan Lacombe after she was named Aiken Poet Laureate in April 2017.
"On Being Named Poet Laureate"
Surprise, delight – then sudden realization
Of my commitment, my duties, my obligation.
How did the committee arrive at their decision
That I should be worthy of this position?
How can I not pledge to develop my poetic talents
And continue to maintain my artistic balance?
How can I not embrace the trust and faith placed in me
To fulfill my duties and be all that you want me to be?
How can I not hope that my best poetry is yet to be written?
And that by the scourge of pride I will not be smitten?
How could I not honor my colleagues' goodwill
Having given my word this pledge to fulfill?
As for The Aiken Poets, I value their insight
All accomplished poets in their own right.
This honor proposes how powerful words can be,
The challenge of writing them now up to me.
Serving the City and poetry as a liaison
I now have a new page to write on!
Joan M. Lacombe
Aiken's Poet Laureate
April 21, 2017