Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Standing on my own grave site

While I was off on one of my gigs as poet laureate (which my youngest daughter insists on pronouncing "low-rate"), my wife did a surprising thing.

She is chair of our village board of trustees, and as such, happened to be talking to a member of our town's cemetery committee. He told her that a spot in the "old" (and more beauteous) cemetery had just opened up, and quite unexpectedly, the town having lately celebrated the inking of its charter 250 years ago, and two centuries and a half of citizens passed on having crowded the little yard to full.

Now my wife is merely 57 to my 70, so actuaries would suggest that I have a better shot at bedding down in that plot in the imminent future than she does.  But she is in the midst of working out the affairs of her wonderful mother, who died unexpectedly late this past winter, and who left those affairs in anything but order. So mortality and its practical consequences are of course much on her mind just now.

My attitude toward death is a bit like a peasant's: I try (unsuccessfully) to avoid thinking about it, and hope that, when it comes, it does so quickly and mercifully, not least because I have the saddest possible memories of my grandmother, who lingered in a nursing home for five years after she'd lost capacity to remember even her children's names.

My wife is way too good for me (how COULD I get so lucky? How could I "get the girl"?), and she is different too. I have drafted a poem  that ponders that difference with respect to how we look at the ultimate loss.  I'm not sure if it's any damned good, nor whether it's finished, nor if it ever will be or can be:

Thank You Note
My wife points out that we’ll be forever close
To Tink and Polly, old-timers, dearest of neighbors,
And then –is she crazy?– suggests that instead of a headstone
We should ask for a bench, where our children can sit and eat.
(She loves a picnic, like her late sweet mother before her.)

From that seat, she adds, they can take in the panorama,
Ideally thinking of us with more laughter than grief.
She’s always been good with what children (and now grandchildren)
May need or want or do, though when ours were small,
They proved to be more than resourceful by themselves.

The two youngest daughters dreamed characters up for their games:
Sharlee, the bright one, Sally, her sister, the fool,
Meek Bunnum the rabbit, the villainous Moody Hawk.
An older brother imagined a dog named Ruffy.
(The death of his real dog, Plum, kept him home from school.)

The eldest daughter at four years old, in delight,
Reported she’d found a pair of slugs on a pumpkin,
Pronouncing it thlugth.  The firstborn son was obsessed
With Jeeps. I gave him bumbling nightly lessons,
Guiding his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen.

He wanted perfection, but then who doesn’t want it?
I’ll lose these things and others accrued all these years,
And here at my grave I wonder if one can have been
A father without recalling such random moments,
Or on doing so, weeping actual tears?

At the plot we’ve just bought, my wife now sweeps an arm  
Once more at the view: our favorite mountain to eastward,
Purple with May but still holding snow at the summit.
An eagle appears as if at her conjuring,
Reflected pure and intact below in the river.

Feather spangled by sun, it skims the trees.
My love claps her hands to behold it while I consider
For no reason a check I wrote today for a woman
Who comes now and then to help us with cleaning our house.
She bore a child too early, but the boy stood by her,

Good husband now. They’ve raised that daughter together.
I scribbled a thank you note along with the payment.
Typically broody, I think how the note is akin
To so much on which I’ve laid my hand that at last
Will be gone forever and ever. Those children’s children:

How could I have known how I’d come to love them? 
It isn’t death, that vague abstraction, that daunts me;
It’s rather the leaving behind of so many dear creatures
with whom I’ve trodden the earth that will cover my ashes.
And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me

That what I should be feeling is gratitude
For ever having had all this to lose.

Oxbow Cemetery, Newbury, Vermont


Thursday, May 16, 2013

My Collaboration with the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble

As I indicated in a prior post, I had the distinct honor of presenting my poetry in concert with the VCME.

A dvd will be available as soon as its artwork is completed, and I will post a link for its purchase.

this is my poem "Peaceable Kingdom," followed by the music
this is Thomas Read’s last piece followed by my final poem
This is my poem, "Rodney Fallen," followed by the music

I can't judge the poems, but the music thrills me.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Don McKay and Canada's cultural riches

It's been a busy spell for me: a good deal of travel and a big dose, a pleasant one to be sure, of reading and lecturing obligations. Hence the terseness of this post.

One of those recent trips took me to Canada, where I was one of six artists participating in a couple of mixed-genre events. These were arranged by the wonderful Ontario poet and essayist John B. Lee, whose works are so copious, accomplished and varied that I can't single out any one, two or three books by his hand to recommend. Google this terrific author and you won't be disappointed, whichever book may catch your fancy.

Besides John, I sat in with Marty Gervais, another more than noteworthy Canadian poet (and journalist), one whose modesty, both personal and literary, belies a huge soul and deep insight; and with longtime friend Douglas Glover, whose readings of some of his short-shorts (though he practices a number of other fictional and essayistic modes) roused the packed houses, first, in Port Dover, a wonderful and funky Lake Erie fishing town, and then, two hours to the west, in Highgate, where we performed in a beautiful old Methodist church, reclaimed as an arts center.

I must likewise mention the two musician-songwriters who rounded out the bill. Young Michael Schotte is, simply, a guitar virtuoso; check him out too. And our master of ceremonies, Ian Bell,  curator of the excellent Port Dover Maritime Museum, is also a fine instrumentalist. Ian is also author of song lyrics that are every bit as "poetic" as anything else I heard on those stages. Look him up– and prepare to be mightily impressed.

During the whole time I spent with this delightful, talented crowd (and with such warm audiences), I was embarrassed to recognize how little even I, who try as I can to stay abreast of Canadian cultural developments, really know of our northern neighbor and its substantial intellectual and artistic resources. Indeed, there is many an American who, out of nothing more than the most blatant ignorance, makes fun of Canada, as if its citizens were a throng of yahoos or bland bozos.

I hadn't intended at the start to go off on any sermon. But surely condescension without knowledge symptomizes, in fact, ignorance and close-mindedness, period. After all, mightn't we learn something, say, from the absence (at least relative to ours) of Canada's student debt? from its city, provincial and federal governments' support of the arts? from its patently superior delivery of health care (don't argue before Googling any quality-of-life index in that respect)?

Can we really find it quaint of the Canadians to value health, education and cultural life enough to pay for much of their costs out of tax money? Maybe, but Canadians apparently do not. (Never mind Canada's much lower poverty and violent crimes rates.) And, sticking with the arts of writing, never mind that probably the U.S, doesn't have a more impressive trio of fiction writers, say, than Ondaatje, Atwood and Munro.

If all this sounds a bit like a rant, forgive me.  Better simply to say that I have resolved to keep my own eye more closely on what is going on above the border, and that I think we all should, if only so as to find enjoyment in places we hadn't known about. For now, I can speak of a "discovery" I made up there, can recommend to literature-lovers the work of Don McKay, one of the most evocative and deftly honed voices I've encountered in a long, long time. He was pointed out to me by John Lee himself, and I now pass on a keen endorsement. Twice a recipient of the prestigious Governor General's award for excellence in poetry, and a man deeply versed in the natural world (which has particular appeal to me), McKay is author most recently of Strike/Slip, a superb collection that anyone attracted to this literary art will thank me for calling to his or her attention.

Don McKay's poems would be a good place for anyone to start in his or her reconsideration of Canada's cultural riches. The following short poem may serve as a teaser:

Astonished -
astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short
and turned toward stone, the moment
filling with its slow
stratified time. Standing there, your face
cratered by its gawk,
you might be the symbol signifying eon.
What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere
sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds
rear up into mountains, ammonites
fossilize into gems. Are you thinking
or being thought? Cities
as sand dunes, epics
as e-mail. Astonished
you are famous and anonymous, the border
washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone
inside you steps from the forest and across the beach
toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.

P.S. My collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives from Autumn House Books, is now out on Kindle, $9.99