Saturday, September 28, 2013

work in progress

I have recently been looking over old poems, ones culled from this or that collection, and it occurred to me that their inadequacies were somehow ones of format. I may be wrong or right about this, but at all events, I have slowly been "translating" them from verse to prose, whose relative suppleness –especially for a poet with formalist leanings like me– seemed more welcoming of their intentions.  

Here are two:

Lame and Sound

Whatever the ailment, he wasn’t right.  You could tell that just by observation, however subtle and oblique I tried to make mine. He didn’t live in our town, but I’d seen him before in that bigger one, where I go now and then to do errands. The least attentive of us couldn’t have missed him–  his home-made walking stick, his filthy parka, the oddly fringed bandana he wore around his head, and above all the way he moved.

His tortured walk involved that bandanna’d head. Glancing sidelong, I could watch the cloth’s fringe flap as he performed a series of frenzied nods, staggering away from the magazine stand where he’d just bought some sort of porn magazine, maybe only Playboy, maybe something even fouler, stupider. In any case, he appeared desperate to vanish, to head for home, whatever home might amount to. 

The little convenience shop was crowded, and any who noticed him looked quickly away, as I say. No one wanted to behold him as he lurched to the hissing door, then through, humping himself along like some shot beast. No one wanted to imagine what he’d ever done, what he did now, what he might do once gone from view.

For my part, as a fall rain hard as a sledge kept thumping the roof, I imagined the pouts of the magazine’s back-cover models. I’d barely glimpsed the colorful advertisement before he vanished, yet for some reason they seared my brain, the glamorous couple in a sleek, red, hide-seated convertible, regarding each other with smoldering eyes.

Yes, that photograph’s still clear in mind. The gorgeous woman’s expression was obviously designed to seem sexual, but to me– although, no, I couldn’t look at it for much longer than a second– her expression crazily resembled the one of the reeling lame man himself, an expression of pain, even anguish.

As for the man in the picture, we were meant to understand that he could speed away at will, like some lithe, wild creature, the sort a car like that would be named for.

Serpent on Barnet Knoll 

The new puppy noses a frozen snake across the rain-glazed snow. How did the little creature meet its end? It is coiled, a replica of its mean-mouthed, living self. It should long since have wriggled deep into mulch on the floor of some granite cleft, so that if it died, and it did, it would do it down there, in secret. Odd enough. 

But my mind’s still odder, having followed its own unmappable, inward paths from that circled corpse  to a moment this morning before I set out: at my mirror, greasing my lips against the cold, I inspected myself. Age-lines, puckering mouth, and gray hair all still surprise me. I considered the wen, a permanent swelling that puffs my left eyebrow into a small horn.  It’s taken the frozen snake to remind me of that passing observation, though how it did so I plain can’t explain.

Out here, I encounter the morning’s savage gusts, which make the thrashing spruce-tops curse and complain. When there’s a lull, I hear the ceaseless and meaningless scolding of red squirrels, the grating of ravens.

One day, way back in my third grade year, I reached for Joe Morey’s hat on the playground. I’d knocked it off, taunting him for a sissy, even though he and I were friends for the most part. Nearly weeping with frustration, Joe reached down for the hat in the same moment. Our heads clapped together, my brow swelling slightly but, as it turned out, forever. I’d meant to be cruel that day, and I was, and I got my long-lasting due.

But now is now. How have sixty-odd years gone by, as the hackneyed old saying has it, in the wink of an eye?

The snake as mere snake was a harmless non-venomous garter. It’s something else now, something that makes me quit my hike for a while. I stand and wait, but nothing comes that will change me. Why would I expect it to, no matter my unvoiced, all but unconscious prayers?

It’s almost Christmas. In decades of northern winters, I’ve never seen such a thing as a snake in the open in December. But however I strive for something significant in the event, nothing reveals itself except what I’ve long known about snakes mere facts, devoid of meaning, versions of reality that seem only somehow to demean me. 

Was this the creature’s first winter? Who knows? A snake doesn’t count or reason.

There are only so many moments, I tritely reflect, in anyone’s life. Why stand here like a statue and fritter a single one away? But what else should I be thinking about out here? I have wife, children, grandchildren, along with a host of lesser earthly attachments. I clench all of them tight to my heart. But there come times when a sort of unattached self prevails.

Off on my own, of course, I might contemplate violence or crime. Also, of course, I don’t. Am I not therefore absolved?  But what about me requires absolution anyhow? I simply feel this deep unsettledness, which is ungovernable, random, and opaque. One day my head struck a temporary enemy’s head, but before that, surely, something had already slithered into my soul sometime, and it lingered, making subsequent and unwelcome forays to the icy surface, whenever, however it might.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Case of Martin Farquhar Tupper– and Us

On September 7, I had the great pleasure of attending the marriage of my oldest daughter to a wonderful young man named Chris Simons, and the more taxing pleasure of writing a poem for the occasion. I could summon an entire article about the event or what went into my composition, but neither would be in keeping with what I imagine as my readers’ expectations. So I will concentrate, rather, on an odd development at the wedding.

I’m talking about receiving a gift from one of the bride and groom’s friends: a handsome volume of poems. She had been directed by her mother to present it to me, the flattering assumption being that I of all people she could think of would know how to use it. It seems the book had originally (and anonymously) been presented to the mother’s own great grandfather. It bears the inscription: “Christmas Tree, 1884,” and I picture its lying under lower branches some 130 years back, wrapped in holiday paper.

Its contents were produced by an Englishman, Martin Farquhar Tupper, a contemporary of Tennyson and, in this country, Longfellow. He is, of course, utterly forgotten, no matter the inscription on his headstone: "Although he is dead, he will speak." But in his time Tupper was a more than considerable presence, a member of the Royal Society, recipient of a special gold medal for his literary accomplishments by the King of Prussia, and most impressively, a popular writer. The man sold books! I mean he sold them in such quantity as to make any contemporary poet blink with envy: his “Proverbial Philosophy” (imagine the use of such a title today in other than a satiric manner!) went through forty British editions in three decades, and just under a million copies were sold in the United States! The mind boggles.

The volume I received is primarily notable for how beautiful it is as physical object; we moderns could envy that as well. But the only commentary on his oeuvre that I’s able to could is by W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame:

Tell me, Henry Wadsworth, Alfred, Poet Close, or Mister Tupper,
Do you write the bonbon mottoes my Elvira pulls at supper?"

"But Henry Wadsworth smiled, and said he had not had that honour;
And Alfred, too disclaimed the words that told so much upon her."

"Mister Martin Tupper, Poet Close, I beg of you inform us";
But my question seemed to throw them both into a rage enormous."

"Mister Close expressed a wish that he could only get anight to me.
And Mr. Martin Tupper sent the following reply to me:--"

"A fool is bent upon a twig, but wise men dread a bandit."
Which I think must have been clever, for I didn't understand it.

I can’t seem to identify “Poet Close,” though Tennyson and Longfellow’s names remain familiar. Whoever he may be, though, he is twitted brilliantly– and thoroughly, just like Martin Tupper.

Why should this tiny bit we know of Tupper come by way of ridicule? Well, let me quite a verse or two. I select at random, but the book at large is in every sense symptomized by the following:

                  Few and precious are the words which the lips of wisdom utter;
                  To what shall their rarity be likened? What price shall count their worth?...
                  They be chance pearls, flung among the rocks by the sullen waters of Oblivion,
                  Which diligence loveth to gather, and hang around the neck of Memory...etc.

Somewhat remarkably, especially for Tupper’s era in British verse, we hear no rhyme, detect no metric regularity. But then, that’s equally true of Walt Whitman, whom we rightly idolize, so it can’t be adequate reason to dismiss Tupper. Surely enough, his “verse” seems like so much prose arbitrarily cut into line-units, which is what many seem to think distinguishes free verse in any case. But if I were able here to recite aloud any passage, say, from Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” that magisterial elegy to the slain Abraham Lincoln, I think the great man’s cadences and his lyrical energies, so lacking in Tupper, would quickly manifest themselves.

Instead, we can poke fun at Tupper’s rather clumsy handling of metaphor: words of wisdom are likened, quite predictably and thus tritely, to pearls. But then the pearls are flung among rocks. What flings them? The waters of Oblivion, which something called diligence (search me) hangs around the neck of Memory. Pearls-waters-rocks-neck. Get it? Neither do I.  Perhaps, as Gilbert put it, the formulation was “clever, for I didn't understand it.”

And yet I think our chief objection to Tupper’s poetry is its moral certitude. Here is a speaker who feels entirely at ease with making pronouncement on what Wisdom is. And again, he does not shrink from using such other abstractions as oblivion and diligence and memory. We simply don’t trust that sort of stance anymore, and why not?

Well, however conscious I am that I’m reducing immense cultural transformations to simplism here, I’d venture that the political and military violence of the last century (which, alas, abides into this one) has a lot to do with our mistrust. Not long after Tupper’s heyday, the shocking cataclysm that we name Word War I came to pass; that was the one, remember, that our nation entered in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Then World War II. And to this day, we leap into conflict on the basis of equally abstract slogans and catch-words: Security, Freedom, Human Dignity, Axis of Evil, what have you? I don’t necessarily grind a particular political axe when I note that such lofty rhetoric rarely accord with what transpires on the blood-soaked ground. Socialist worker’s paradise didn’t work out so well, either, did it?

Skepticism toward that type of abstraction, or any, really, was expressed by the ruminations of Hemingway’s protagonist in his brilliant story, “The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio”: “Liberty, what we believed in, now the name of a McFadden publication.” In short, talk –however elevated– is cheap, and too frequently deceptive. When an author assures us of what capital-W Wisdom is (or Duty, or Decency, or even Beauty), we are nowadays apt to shout, “Oh yeah? Who are you to say so?”

But why make Martin Tupper into a straw man? That is not my intention. I’m more inclined to reflect on the fragility and uncertainty of literary effort, not to mention reputation. The Nobel Prize for literature in its first ten years, for example, was awarded to the following:

1907 : RUDYARD KIPLING (Britain)
1906 : GIOSUE` CARDUCCI (Italy)

Of these, I suspect, even quite literate people will have heard only of Kipling; literary specialists may know Sully Prudhomme’s name. But Carducci? Sienkewicz? Likely not.

Most of us contemporary poets have very high regard for the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; but who’s to say that in a century’s time he won’t be as obscure a figure as Rudolf  Eucken? Or poor Martin Farquhar Tupper?

My overall response to the Tupper volume I received at the wedding, and to the list above, might well be a melancholic one. If I had to bet, I’d surely say that my own work will be taken out of circulation in due course by that severest of anthologists, time itself. I might therefore ask, why bother? Isn’t it entirely possible that, even as I lampoon Tupper’s jumbled metaphors, any future reader of my oeuvre will find techniques and tendencies equally laughable? Probably. But I don’t know.

I don’t know and I don’t care. My reaction, in fact, is rather blithe. That none of us authors will ever know in his or her lifetime whether he or she is any good feels to me more like a relief than a damnation. I can go about my business, which turns out to be that of minor artist (all poets, compared, say, to medical pioneers, fitting that description), utterly unchained by fears for my name down the years. To consider the eminent Martin Farquhar Tupper is to be schooled in humility– and for my money, there is more freedom than confinement on graduating from that school.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

a new poem

I haven't a lot to put up this week, the last week having been so centered on our oldest daughter's wedding. She and her wonderful partner have been living together for some time, and have produced, in fact, a twin grandson and -daughter, Creston and Ivy, among the very brightest lights of our lives. But I suppose I am still old-fashioned enough to rejoice in this "official" commitment.

Oldest son Creston makes custom electric guitars (true works of art:, and is thus well acquainted in the music world: he recruited a kick-ass band if there ever was one, led by the nonpareil Mark Spencer (well worth Googling too). So it was a thoroughly joyous event.

My wife of thirty years and I are headed to our Maine cabin again. I have a board retreat to attend for the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, of which I am current president. (Check But we'll sneak in a few days of r & r before and after.

To that extent, the valedictory poem I wrote early last month upon closing up (or so I thought) the cabin is a touch off with respect to the occasion I imagined it to mark. But I'll post it anyhow. I kinda like it.


Final Evening at Oxbrook Camp

            Our loons still scull on the pewter
            calm of the lake, the chick having dodged
            the eagle one more day.
            The valorous drake and hen both held it
            between their bodies while the raptor circled. 
            Reprieve. And here I am, old.

            I stooped an hour ago
            to dump the pail of dace I’d trapped,
            then watched them scatter, the ones
            we hadn’t hooked through their dorsals for bait.
            Twenty or so now swim at large–
            still prey, but not to us,

            Who are headed home in the morning.
            I’m poised to throw away this clutch
            of wilting black-eyed Susans
            picked wild by my wife of all these years
            to grace our painted metal table,
            where we lifted ladders of spine

            from fat white perch, last supper.
            So here I am, this aging man
            who wants somehow to write
            only one love song after another.
            I pause at dusk, I blink, I toss
            Our dim bouquet into late summer’s woods.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For Donald and John

The following is a short little essay that originally appeared in the excellent Vermont-based magazine, Northern Woodlands. It is not poetry, but some of its –what?– impulses tend to inform my work in that genre.

For Donald and John

My friend John the blacksmith lent me an old book, A Natural History of Trees, by Donald Culross Peattie, which is both quaint and authoritative. Maybe it’s this combination of qualities that made the farrier beam as he handed it to me, saying,It’s perfect.”

When I got home, I first turned to the chapter on the hop hornbeam, a tree I’ve always treasured, although I’ve never really figured out why. After all, it’s a killing wood to chop or work, as I’ve often proved to myself. No wonder its folk names are ones like ironwood or lever-wood. Mr. Peattie muses that everything about this little tree is at once serviceable and self-effacing.  Such members of any society are easily overlooked, but well worth knowing.”

I looked up from that passage and thought of John himself; he’s a bright man, but reticent, self-effacing – and tough as ironwood. And I thought, so to speak, through John to a long gone friend, Don Chambers, who once told me how he’d cut hornbeam all through one winter. Back in his time, before the arrival of synthetics in any quantity, the rigid and tight-grained wood was used for stretcher handles or coffin-grips. I recall his telling me, “By God, you didn’t want them loads to tumble.”

Illness and death called on the lever-wood’s strengths, so it may be odd for me to make of this scurfy tree a token of life and health. But who’s going to notice, really? And can’t I anyhow forge some symbol from the tree’s fruit, which stands on the branch right on through winter, a mast for deer and grouse and whatever else may seek it? Perhaps searching for another sort of nurture, I’ve now and then plucked some florets to lay on my desk, for however brief a time, as if in the bitter-coldest months, putting them there might also help to sustain a household.
I once used five cord of hop hornbeam to heat our house through the winter months, having left the logs unsplit. The maul couldn’t crack them, and when I tried a wedge, I buried it down in the heartwood. There was no way to fetch that metal back but to burn the log and fetch it out of the fire, as John does a shoe.

I smile as I picture him when he handed me his book. He was dressed as always in greens,
his beard swept sideways to his face from laying a cheek against the flank of a horse, I suspect. Though he owns a small herd of Suffolk Punch for his own pleasure, he doesn’t make a living putting shoes on working stock these days. In my mind’s eye, he has shaped the shoe on his forge and plunged it deep into the bucket of hissing water, and now is nailing it fast.

I’ve lived my life by words alone for the most part and somehow been more recognized for that
than I’d ever have imagined. Suddenly I’m the state poet laureate, a post that thrills and humbles me at once. I’ve been talking and talking and talking, writing and writing and writing, more than ever, and I’ve been doing both for forty years at that.  So as I imagine two terse men who found entirely different ways through the world, steady ones who’ve made more palpable gestures than any I ever have, I get an odd feeling, or perhaps –no definitely– a mixture of feelings. I’d surely be wrong to name it simple envy. It’s better than that. Is it love or admiration – or both?  Doubtless. And others, less easy to name.

I dream John whispering not to a saddle horse but to a great blond Belgian gelding. He holds the nails
in his teeth, the hoof as wide as an old-time privy seat-cover.

And, under a sky so blue it’s really some other color, also beyond description, Don still drives his saw through ironwood, his wire spectacles glinting in the January sun . Even through his plaid mackinaw, I can see those cannonball biceps in his short arms. If he took off his chopper’s mitts to greet me, I’d feel the calluses of decades in the north woods.

It would be a good thing, I surmise, to let these good and honest men direct me at least for the rest of the day.

In another era, this might be the point at which the author addressed his “gentle reader,” tacking on a moral of some sort. And since I am, precisely, summoning two figures from another era, I’ll go ahead and do it, minus the moral, because I can’t say what my moral would be:

Gentle reader, perhaps you will tell me that these things and people and labors that so obsess me are worth nobody’s notice in our time, that I’m only sentimental, that the best thing I might do would be to write a poem, a not untypical elegy, or even a book of poems about all such matter. Even if I did, of course, it would scarcely be what John calls a perfect book. That’s beyond the reach of a wordsmith, even if perfection might be possible for a blacksmith, or for a dear old lumberjack, the one who –along with a horseman– started me thinking this way in the first place.