(A short early chapter appears below.)
I Was Thinking of Beauty is my eleventh collection of poems. It is now available. The book can be ordered at amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from the publisher (Four Way Books, NYC), or, signed, from me. Consult my web site for all these possibilities.
Hookum-snuffie. Almost no one knows what it means anymore, and few would care.
Why should they?
More and more, everything about me seems out of date, perhaps to an even greater degree than with most people of a certain age. Not much after dawn today, for instance, I took my ash paddle, fashioned by the late Hazen Bagley, and set out on the water in a sixteen-foot wood and canvas canoe, fabricated by the Old Town Company in 1950.
I inherited the boat from my long gone father’s late brother. The men took their sons far north to this part of Maine in that canoe and its partner, my dad’s eighteen-footer, which blew off a beach some years after in a storm, never to be recovered. A mystery, a vanishing, among many. I was nine years old on that first trip.
Those guide model canoes were more than merely beautiful. The hull planks were feathered, not butted, for example, to keep sand and grit out of their seams. The fabled Grand Lake Stream canoe-maker, Lawrence “Pop” Moore, told me he considered them among the best such craft ever produced.
An hour and some back, my canoe glided me, its progress as smooth as the lake itself, to the foot of the Machias River at Third Lake Dam.
To one like me, of course, there is far more complex and inscrutable technology at work nowadays than ever went into a canoe, no matter how exquisitely made. What can it mean, even out here, to be such a paddler in an era of jet skis? Perhaps more daunting, at least to me, what is a writer in an age of Internet service even at the summit of Mt. Everest?
Twitter. Google. Facebook. Skype.A North Country Life • x
What does solitude signify anymore? What on earth is a poet, not to mention a poet-woodsman, poet-angler, poet-hunter? Will he have any readers at all? If so, this is for them, though it’s even more for each of the men and women I’ll be conjuring, masters of language themselves, one and all, one and all gone on.
You cut a small branch of hardwood and then you fashion a hook by nipping it at a fork. With the hook, you can lift a seething pot by its bail when your spuds and onions get to boiling over, or whenever they’re ready to taste. That’s the hokum. If you know what you’re doing, you can lift the lid and judge the readiness by smell. That’s the snuffie .
Hookum-snuffie. It’s believed to derive from Passamaquoddy pidgin, and no, it can’t mean anything now. Still I say it. There’s something deep in the combination of words, and in many ancient others, that I always loved, and which I still want. That’s why I now and then make a hookum-snuffie just to do it. And I never shape one without naming it aloud in the woods or on the shore. It helps me to see some of the last of the genuine woodsmen again, along with their strong wives, and in rare cases even one or both of their parents, all of whom had their special skills. Nineteenth-century figures, really—like me, though of course I’m speaking only of temperament. I’m not one of them, could never have been.
I’ve come back and back to this corner of Maine for more than sixty years. Its hold on me grows even more powerful in the absence of those great characters I met in young life, more powerful too as, inevitably, the part of me weakens that busts through the puckerbrush for wild game, wades heavy water for trout, or portages more than a few hundred yards at a go.
Every elation here—each bird pointed and flushed, each noble whitetail buck, each loon and moose and northwest wind, with its wild tattered apron of waves and its rushing clouds—is at least equally freighted with its opposite. I ask, in my vanity: how can I surrender all this to others, so few of whom can possibly know the region’s history, as I do, by way of its old-time characters?
I ache to see the foxfire glint again in Earl Bonness’s eyes, say, as he tends his flame and his smutted cookware. He speaks of driving great evergreen logs out of Mopang Stream. I heard him tell about all that. I yearn to hear George MacArthur, who could throw a broad-blade sleeper axe and bury it, time after time, in some not-so-near tree’s trunk. He told me how and when he learned that trick.
The old ones told me and told me and told me.
George and Earl always claimed they liked to work. Not many nowadays would truly savor their sort of labor, which would kill most modern humans, as it would have me, even when I was twenty. Paid by the backbreaking job, not the hour, and still, like as not, you were hunting or fishing or poaching for food, day or night, in the scant interludes.
The male elders are barrel-chested, deep-voiced figures, who still seem mythic, despite the tempering irony of my older vision. Earl knew what it was to ride the long-logs clear to the ocean, where they’d be gathered into schooners and carried south under great sails to busier ports.
George knew what it was to cut ties through the whole of a winter on White’s Island without once seeing the camp in daylight—out by lantern before dawn, back the same way after dark.
George’s niece Annie knew what it was to use a canoe for a bedroom.
And I—I know what they told me.
They’re all dead now. Everyone else in the world, or so it can seem in irrational moments, lies dead too.
The lumber company blew up Third Lake Dam about forty years back, after moving timber by water was outlawed. Reaching its ghostly site, I heard an eagle scream uplake, but I couldn’t find her. I started a fire and waited until the pot-lid danced. I hadn’t brought anything to cook but coffee.
Hookum-snuffie, I breathed, imagination transforming those pillars of mist out on the lake to river drivers riding their wood.
2012. The new century isn’t all that new anymore, though how recently it seemed so. Now it recedes into one before and one before that and words and phrases call to me: deer noise on the beach, are gone on the clean jump; a tin cup wants more coffee; there are bad doings on the lake; a rugged man is withy; a big chopped tree is quite a stick.
Earl has a habit of slowly filling and tamping his pipe as he starts to spin a story. George makes a certain wave of his hand when he does. Do you mind the time, George begins, the verb an old form of remember....
It’s as though I mind Earl scampering over the logs in the boom; soon they’ll lift the dam-gates and sluice that mass into the Machias.
George has swamped a spot where he’ll drop the first tall cedar of the morning; he spits on his mitts, grabs the bucksaw.
I’ve long considered myself a wordsmith, and though I do so in my late sixties with a satisfaction that dims as my sense of the literary arts’ future does, I don’t quite know how else to know things. I go on working at a magic return of what’s perished, that old profusion of a beloved idiom, one that lies hidden and hurts me.
Hookum-snuffie. I muttered this morning. Hookum-snuffie.Then I doused my fire, steam wasting itself into the heavens. I said it again, more slowly. It rose out of me on a column of air. I dreamed my old dream: that some word—fossilized, forgotten—could quell an old longing.