Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two New Poems

After the holidays, and after the funeral of my wife's wonderful brother, to whom I referred in my last post, my wife and I took advantage of my retirement and of her having a week's reprieve from her duties as a law professor and mediator. We headed for our remote cabin on the New Brunswick border in Maine.

The weather there was affected by the polar vortex (pace that blowhard Rush Limbaugh– wonder where he got his scientific training?). That is to say, it was downright frigid. We did manage to get outdoors every day, but not for very long. Nesting in the wood-warmed cabin, however, we were able to lick our wounds and to spend wonderful time together, so the trip was well worthwhile.

Back in Vermont, we are experiencing yet a third cold snap, and, largely house-bound, I have (I hope) completed two poems I roughed out to our north. They follow.

               Zero Farhenheit

Tugged by the notion of strong black coffee,
I get out of bed and embrace my wife.
About time. The dogs lie so tight to the stove
All three look eager to climb right inside.

She has walked them already and dished their food.
I hear the whisper of kindling cedar:
She revived the fire as well while I clove
To my quilts, a common, self-seeking behavior.

Together we study an upriver eagle,
Backlit, unmoving, on a dark arm of pine.
The stream whispers too. But for red squirrels’ scribblings,
The snow shows pluperfectly blank. Yet it shines.

The woman glows also, even the lines
Between eyebrows. Those tracings– she’s earned every one,
Having stood close beside me no matter my failings,
Having borne and instructed daughters and sons.

Yes, I know that today is all anyone owns,
None of us leaving the planet alive.
No matter, I fantasize some guarantees
Beyond logic: our eagle will pose against sky

On that pine bough forever, the three dogs will lie
By the hearth, and I’ll be able to cherish
My wife as I do, but perennially.
The woods drizzle powder. That bright white won’t perish.

                          He Risks a Walk 

Between two pock-marked beech, a strand of wire 

For cows he recalls from his childhood. The cruel barbs shine,

Small blooms of brightness. When darkness stoops, Orion

Will glow as he’s always glowed among the stars.

He’ll nock his arrow, as if he meant to stir mayhem

Below.  For now, the old man thinks of the house,

Where his wife may still feel disquieted. The weather scared them

Last night with its sideways brute rain. And then it froze.

When he comes upon a winter-kill, he wonders,

Did he read at some point of a people who buried their dead

As this poor ruffed grouse is buried, neck and head 

Alone protruding, or was that just some old torture?

The grouse’s stiffened crest is lustrous with frost.

The bird had hidden in powder. When it turned to ice,

It sealed the body in. So peculiar a sight

Has stopped the old man cold in his foolish walk.

Today’s no day for wandering under trees

That go off around him everywhere louder than guns–

The clap and crack of bursting limb and trunk.

Sunbeams garland the forest in silvery beads,

Every branch and bole, both shattered and whole,

A radiant filament.  He can’t see why

Death should be brilliant. Ice in its sightless eyes,

The head might be a flower, or maybe some jewel

Carelessly dropped by somebody roaming where

The old walker feels his way, his trail so sheer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

RIP, Amico J. ("Chip") Barone

Just before Christmas, there were two events that needed our family's notice. One was pretty minor: I turned 71 on December 22nd.

The other was seismic. Our holiday had its bright side, certainly, mostly because of a clatter of five children (including the oldest daughter, mother already of three-year-old twin boy and girl, who delighted us by announcing she was with child again) and a larger clatter of grandchildren; but the joy was marred by the death at 55 of my wife's good and valiant brother (and one of my dearest friends), who, after a twelve-year battle with cancer that can only be called heroic, at last passed peacefully on the night of the 21st. 

We buried Chip two Saturdays back, after a Catholic wake on Friday evening that. despite frigid weather, saw 600 people file through the funeral home, everyone from all his doctors and nurses to the entire police department he served to the local firefighters, his barber, his auto mechanic, and the man who picked up his trash.

Chip was just a town cop who never sought to impress anyone, but merely to do the little things that helped others with their daily lives. His wonderful young daughter described her father's many acts of kindness and patience to her, for instance: sitting with her in the car after ballet class and playing Barbies with her until a torrential rainstorm let up; lying with her on his chest so as to warm up her winter bed before he put her into it; that sort of gesture. And as she said in her eulogy, "It turns out these little things were actually the big things." 

There's surely a salutary lesson there. It is not, of course, only poets and writers who want to extend ego into its widest possible domain. As a culture, we are schooled in thinking we must do extraordinary things or gather great riches or start great movements in order to lead worthy lives. My brother-in-law's example suggests that a far more humble sort of aspiration is what really makes an existence meaningful.

I was asked by my beloved friend's widow to compose a poem for his memorial. I didn't have much time to do that, but I dispatched the job quickly, largely, I suspect, because I had been doing "research" on it for the full three decades and more that I knew and loved Chip. It is not, I believe, a good poem, or at least not one whose quality would be obvious to a reader unacquainted with its honoree. I quote it below as further argument in favor of the self-effacing mode that he so nobly personified.

                  What It Boils Down To

                                                         –for Chip Barone, RIP

It boils down to this: you will always be young and handsome
And strong in our hearts– but above all kind, concerned
For how those around you felt, and this even when
You fought a war that few can so much as imagine.
We two were different: I’ve lived my life in the mind,
And although you were scarcely less bright, you were more the doer.
And you were my hero, still are. There seem fewer and fewer
Like you in whose person ethic and deed are combined.
Thought, no matter how lofty, seems duller than lead,
Without heart to match, just as faith without works is dead.
You said, no matter how terribly you were tried,
You felt a lucky man. I remember you said
As well– though we all must meet with pain and dread–
The world’s best things are happening every day.
You made that clear by the way you smiled on your wife,
On your children, and with pure joy on your two grandchildren.
That’s one example. If there’s some grand kingdom called heaven,
As I believe there may be, it will echo life
In what you showed to be its most loving hours.
And those of us who loved you –we are scores and scores–
Will take those moments you cherished and make them ours.
What it boils down to, though I say as much in tears,
Is that your valor and goodness will light our years.