Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Man On The Rock \ Approaching Equinox

Alan: One of my favorite books as a child was Wee Gillis by Monroe Leaf with drawings by Robert Lawson.  I hadn’t thought of it in decades when it floated back to the surface carrying a new meaning alongside recollected pleasures. 

The Man On The Rock

The image came to me of a large man sitting on a rock,
head bowed, disconsolate –
a man as knobby and rough as his tweeds,
in a landscape sloping and barren but for boulders and thistles.
Beside him, a huge leather sack and some sticks at odd angles –
the biggest bagpipes in all Scotland –
for which he had not the lungs.

I remembered then the story of Wee Gillis,
how in childhood he spent his summers in the Highlands
stalking the stags for his thin uncle and his winters in the Lowlands
calling the cows for his stout uncle,
and who just now comes into view, 
halfway between the Highlands and the Lowlands,
at that time in his life when he has to choose.

Wee Gillis ponders.  The uncles follow behind, then
stand nearby, reasoning, arguing, shouting, jumping up and down
and finally giving up and sitting, each on his boulder, silent.
Wee Gillis has by now lungs that can hold the breath long, long, long
while stalking the stags, and that can call the cows
loud, loud, loud through the densest mist, lungs and a voice
that can make the glens ring dizzy and the becks run uphill.

The uncles attempt the bagpipes, fail, and sit back down defeated.
Wee Gillis looks at them and keeps looking until the man asks would he like to try?
Wee Gillis takes hold of the biggest bagpipes in all Scotland, fills his immense
lungs, and blows such a blast as knocks both uncles and the large man
off their boulders backwards and he has found his calling.

As a child I thought this story was about Wee Gillis
and that I, too, would some day find my calling
and a way to assuage the feuding parties in my life,
but now I think it was about the large despondent man
who had tried a thing too great for his abilities,
and who, hearing that terrible sound,
teaches Wee Gillis to tame it into tunes,
and is never heard from again.

Nancy: The equinox, coming today with a new moon, marks the beginning (again) of a letting go, another chance to practice that drawn-out sigh...

Approaching Equinox

A friend came in, said
    ice on the windshield this morning.
I said
No when I meant to say, Ah.
A word of acceptance,
    and I know again
how unlike a holy hermit I am,
    that I would look at the last bag
of rice, the ice on the cliff
    and say No.

All these years and
    I still fail in equanimity
fail to grasp the power
    of Ah.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Radio \ September, Breathes The Meadow

Alan: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ "The Lark Ascending" seems to vibrate midway between heaven and earth, like the skylark itself in its spring display.  Hearing it now, 100 years after its composition, I can’t help but feel a melancholy pang running through the promise of renewed life.


Needy for something, punching “on,”
filling the car at random –
last slow-spooling notes of “The Lark Ascending.”

     Quiet, he stands in shadow,
     transfixed by some half-seen motion
     above the glare of stubble fields.

Follow that lone violin
arabesqueing upward to vanish
in an ache of blue.

     He turns, retraces his steps
     while the bird, invisible now,
     still rises, singing in his mind.

A leaf curlicues across the road.
“Poplar,” I think.
“Still green,” I think.

“Summer’s ending now,” I think.

Nancy: Picking up speed, the year rushes on; I feel trapped in a car on the Coney Island ferris wheel.  Stop!  Stop!  Too late.  I shoot out into space.

September, Breathes The Meadow

Visible breath of September
    gray of the neck feathers of the dove
    rose gray
    there, and there
    mist ephemeral
    made real in the seeding grass
    translucent as the leaves of the iris
    gracefully yielding up life
July's breath
the breath of August
    was often French horns
    might have been flutes
    spoke with the strength of pan pipes
    a pulse of stone
    a pulse of life
This morning
    the meadow is silent
    one elm tree standing alone
    fir, eternally green
    and yet
    a quick stop and start of the heart
    I see
    I see and I know
that the meadow is breathing September.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cascade Canyon \ What Do You Need?

Alan:  A journal-poem of a long day-hike in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.  The poem keeps my memory of it vivid, even if eventually – like all peak experiences – it slipped into a lower register, tarnished a little in the retelling.

Cascade Canyon

1.  Jenny Lake

Under the weatherproof lid, a notebook on a chain and a stubby
pencil to write down where you are going in case you need help.

Hurricane Divide.
Number in party: one.

Closing the lid,
these words.

2.  The path

is found in guide
books only

3.  Above Hidden Falls

and above me on two sides
peaks blossom whitely
in arrangements of photographs.

Below, voices.
I spook
up the next six switchbacks.

4.  More things falling

The grove of small cottonwoods
is half gilded
and full of the sound of water dripping from leaves.
The pinnacle spruce are coming into their own with snow on their noses
but this also is melting
in a sound of leaves and even some needles dropping
disguising the rustling patter of the warblers
picking through the trees on their way south

High on the sky rim
a crack
of rockfall.

5.  Farther up the trail and beyond the forks

This is my
one day to be alone.
You people
that I keep meeting,
why do you always offer me
things which are irresistible? –
and once
an orange.

6.  The glacier

It takes a long time
to get up close
and it is still
far away     filling the horizon
between two cliffs.

Broken snout
and lips
hang above a pool
the color of concrete.

The stonepile     blocking the water
feels     like it could move     with a shove
 – is avoided
on the route past.

The glacier tells
that in the winter which is soon
it will make up for
this silence.

7.  Out in the open

At ten thousand feet
the overwhelming smell of
Just one kind of plant grows here.  I pick a twig
and am woozy with licorice.
For all I know the rocks and yellow lichens smell the same but
     I’m too tired to get on hands and knees.
The rock-colored pikas beeent sarcastically
and scurry to gather licorice for the winter.
The marmots are too tame, obviously
stupefied on licorice.

At the top of the switchbacks the smell vanishes
as it has when at the bottom
I pull a couple of crushed leaves
from my pocket.

8.  Hurricane Divide

It’s funny how the mountains
having come this far
back down
Those must be potato fields in Idaho
way over there.

On a gravel flat not far below me
a pack train sorts itself out,
uninterested in the view.
They come on with jangling and clapping,
the horses slipping if they get off onto the snow.
At the crest each cowboy in turn, seeing my side of things,
or whoops
or shouts to those following.

They have turned along the ridge
and disappeared.
The wilderness is narrow.
After all the commotion
it is good to look back
over where I’ve come
and at every inch of the three Tetons
painfully bright
as high
and far from me as ever.

9.  Running back the way I’ve come

and running
and running
and on the levels

Bathing my feet at the bridge
I have a good laugh
with my socks

10.  On out

The peaks tighten again toward the mouth of the canyon
but just here the creek has room to wind.
Those dark dots in the shadows across where it’s marshy
are moose grazing.
The bull’s antlers catch the sun as he lifts his head.
Perhaps he feels autumn coming on.
Why must I leave
this wide place
so soon?

11.  Inspiration Point

The boatman’s
half across the lake!
No running –
desperate galloping!
My pack gouging!  my
hating it!

Making it.

12.  Hitchhiking

Our eyes see only what moves.
A still object moves in the minute flickering of our eyes.
Otherwise we could not see it.
To see something move, or to stand still and then move past it
makes it substantial,
time adding to depth.

Sounds and smells carry on currents of air.
If we wait, they reveal themselves to us calmly.
Rushing past we stampede them from cover.

To travel a path in sections, with rests
and then at a later time run it in reverse
creates a bubble of sensation which floats in and
half rising above
the inhospitable surface of memory.
I would like to do this with whole stages of my life
but must be content
with short and easy journeys.

13.  Afterward

tiredness.  Those gleaming
offer themselves
to every

14.  I continue

The journey is trampled
like September frost under fresh bootprints

or disperses within me
like the fluid in my healing feet.

Nancy:  Do you know what you need to feel that you’re home?  That this is the place that’s been waiting for you?  Not a space, but a place?

What Do You Need?

to hear a canyon wren
to see grain, grass, soybeans
to hear water run downhill
is it sunset on red cliffs
or feeling, seeing, smelling
moss, ferns, bog, wood
steel cutting wood
as you go out
is it this place or that place
the cornfield.  the sea.
when you’re there you know
when you’re lost you know
is it something that’s gone
paved, cut, filled, emptied
gone   gone    gone
where do you keep it
how do you keep it
do you sing to it
tide stone feather moon
blood bones heart
here, can you say
here, put my bones down here

“Cascade Canyon” first appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Adlestrop Revisited \ Letter To Billy Collins

Alan: I wrote this for Nancy’s daughter after her cancer diagnosis earlier this year.  I had previously shared with her Edward Thomas’ lyric, Adlestrop, and this poem emerged from the swirl of emotions following news of her illness.

Adlestrop Revisited
                                        for Christine Nielsen

I too remember Adlestrop, that name
murmuring of Edwardian summer
heat, blue sky and small, still clouds,
the new-cut fields, the train’s unexpected
pause, the open windows and the song
of birds charming the poet’s ear
to the very edges of the twinned bucolic shires:
the fulgent calm before the onslaught
of the August guns.

Was this the unassuming place
to which his mind turned from the trenches,
the muck and stench – this single minute
his refuge of remembered music
in the midst of carnage – his mild paradise?
Was he there again, abstracted,
as he stood to light his pipe
when the concussive shell
sent him straight to heaven or to hell?

I too saw Adlestrop, only the name,
as my own train from London rattled by
one afternoon.  It was the late ‘70s;
the sign a held glimpse in a long row of green.
I don’t remember hayfields.  Was it late June?
Summer surely, but, windows closed,
heat if there was heat kept itself outside.
Still, “Adlestrop,” and I could feel myself
turned back some sixty years and more
to linger in that simple perfect place.

Poetry came to him along with war.
Three years at most of each,
one hundred forty verses more or less,
and yet those so un-modern lines,
their speaking of a world already obsolete,
echoed long after the guns fell silent.
“He was the father of us all,” said Hughes.
Through the second and more wars since,
and all the troubled peace, 
a century on, here in this old New World,
the birds still sing and hold me
in a place both now and in-between.

In the season of biting flies,
in the season of morning fogs
burned off by afternoon to blowtorch winds,
in the time of thunderstorms,
of mosquitoes mobbing the screens at dusk,
there are those days now and again
when the mist lifts and the breeze comes fresh and clean 
for a midday hour or two.
I think of you then.
I think of you too in the days of humid heat
you love so well, and seek, and in the long evenings 
shortening already, though one can
hardly as yet tell.

The sky is too big here, with always
something going on.  I wish,
but so far no fair-weather cloudlets,
lonely and still as haycocks.  Smears, streaks,
broad strokes, washed blues and roiling masses.
I think of you day by day, even when alone
surrounded by friends and love.
We are so far from Adlestrop.
Yet here they are, at last –
soft as downland sheep watched
by the slow-moving sun.
It feels a kind of coming home.

Beeching’s axe fell hard and sharp on Adlestrop,
severing the goods trains from the platforms first.
Another swing and down the station went,
one hundred years and more smashed up
and hauled away as bricks and dust.
That was 1966.  I turned up one year later
on the liner Maasdam, Montreal to Southampton:
the anchor dropping in a hard blow, the ship listing
half the night, the morning harbor all
whitecapped blue.  Disembarking
to the storybook sight of bobbies, red call boxes,
and those little trains like a model railroad
or something out of Disneyland.
I took one up to London, then to Birmingham:
not the Cotswold line.  That would have to wait.

Britain chose the lorry, car and motorway:
Adlestrop became another hamlet without purpose
except now as a bit of picturesqueness
(heritage rating 3 of 5) and place of pilgrimage
by those who love the poem.  The station
sign, I’m told, was placed outside the bus
shelter and a station bench is also there,
enclosed, bearing the poem as a plaque.
If I could visit, I would pass it by.
But I could swear the sign, some sign,
was there along the track that later year.

And what if it wasn’t really there?
If all I saw athwart the rocking car
was anonymous bland greenery
from Oxford all the way to Gloucester?
The sign some ectoplasmic emanation
of the writer’s mind made visible
and carried by a lyric held by heart?
Would it matter?  I go there at my will.
It is a place of peace.  I go there still.

In the season of the hermit thrush,
fluting awake the dawn, and of the midday ovenbird,
I think of you.
In the season of full flowering,
of the second mowing,
of high summer before the turn,
of the deep in-breath before
whatever is to come.

Where is your respite now, in these heavy days,
your heart’s ease and clear-headed calm?
Your place of blue skies and
fair-weather cumulus?  You’ve told us.
Somewhere warm along the old canal,
upstate New York. Medina,
Chittenango, maybe Clyde.

I see you cycling steadily, unhurried,
aware of all around: the still water,
grit under tires, pasture smell,
a duck splashing down ahead.
Do you hear a meadowlark?

I see you among the small towns
and villages of that route, riding
where you will, taking in
the history, taking photos in memory,
knowing that at the end
you’ll find a gallery or museum,
or lunch at a cafe, sitting under
some old shade tree, a glass of Malbec,
sun dappling the grass,
alone in the bright moment,
uncaring, Adlestrop at last.

Nancy:  Not that I’d really write to a poet laureate (2001-03, US; 2004-06, New York State), but reading his poem, Fishing on the Susquehanna in July, certainly stirred happy memories.

Letter To Billy Collins

Dear Billy,
I'm sorry you never fished,
never saw, never slid
down the muddy banks
of the Susquehanna.

I'd have taken you fishing, Billy,
taken you down to the young, strong
river, let the fish and the mudpuppies,
the birdsong and cicada song
wash over you.

To think – that you traced
the thin blue line, down from the hills,
down to the sea, murmuring
Susquehanna, Susquehanna –
thin blue line on a map.

Oh Billy, I wish I'd taken you with me
down to my favorite spot; we'd get up at dawn
and walk down to the river,
walk down in the dewy grass; we'd sit on the bank,
sit all morning, fishing in the Susquehanna.

“Adlestrop Revisted” was first posted on Christine Nielsen’s blog, A Galloping Cat.