Remember the honeysuckle ’gainst the
pillars on the porch? The place we were born is an open field now.
Remember the window open to the night, the breaths and sighs of
oleander bright, and tallow? We are their yield now. Here we stood,
lips parted by our pipe, in a cloud of hallowed smoke. Remember the
honeysuckle ’gainst the pillars as we spoke? It’s where I kneel
Following are companion entries from
the first volume of my Songs and Letters, written and posted
on consecutive days back in April 2005. I don’t pretend they are
important in any way, or even very good; heartfelt, yes, and certainly
revealing; but as to what they reveal, I will humbly, gratefully
leave to you. Gone are the days wherein I would be embarrassed by
something I’ve written. Ample are the times I might be embarrassed
by present actions, if I only had the grace and sense.
Letter to Walt Whitman
Home again. You were right. After
walking and riding across this country and looking at the land, the
sky, and people, this funny little place has changed. The streets are
still narrow, but they no longer seem bare and grim.
I’m in my mother’s kitchen. Her
lilac is ruffled by the breeze, a pie is in the oven. The lines in
her face are deeper than before. Or had I not noticed? When I told
her about sitting at your bedside, she asked, “Is there no one
looking after him?” I said you were fine, just tired. I recalled
how you had made bread that very day, written a poem, and picked a
mountain of greens. I described the firm, proud way you held your
head, and how your grip tightened on my hand when you spoke. As sad
and foolish as it seems, I didn’t tell the truth. But I know she
Thank you for the poems. Now I know
what you meant when you said they were written long ago. The words
were on his ship when brave Odysseus sailed for home. During the
course of his strange journey, they were lost a thousand times, then
found again, like stars hiding behind clouds on a stormy night. But
they did arrive, and like Odysseus, they were themselves, yet
immeasurably altered, were virgin once again.
Before coming home, I visited my
father’s grave. I looked down at where he lay, my collar turned
against the chill. It is spring, you know, but winter too, a time of
mud and blossom. A wagon rattled by. I didn’t know the driver, but
he nodded just the same. We might have been friends in another time,
or will be someday again. Then my father said, “Remember.” It was
just like him.
I also thought of you, shivering
beneath your blanket, how I stirred the fire, and saw faces in the
coals. When I turned, your lips were moving, but your eyes were shut
against the world. What poem were you dreaming then? What bright
hammer were you swinging? The day before, you said, “Come again in
summer. I’ll be stronger then.” I promised you I would, and
before June is gone, I will.
When I told my mother of my plan, she
said, “Why don’t you eat some? That’s a long time from now.”
Then she filled my bowl with stew. I am eating still. She is humming
at the stove. Like me, she would love you. But her world is here, on
the path to her garden and the cemetery. She is a wise gray anchor,
and will not forsake what she knows, while I, her lonesome, foolish
son, go on believing everything.
April 14, 2005
Walt Whitman’s Reply
My dear friend, I am truly flattered by
your concern. But I think you should spend less of your precious time
worrying about me, and more of it trying to understand yourself. Your
mother is right. It is better to know a familiar patch of earth with
all of one’s heart and senses than to seek blindly for something
that isn’t there. I am an old man, with an old body. The temple is
in decay, and the restless spirit seeks another in which to pray.
This should not concern you. Stay home and take care of your mother.
Ignore my feeble summertime request. It was symbolic — a failed
attempt to not break your heart or mine. Instead, go visit your
father at the cemetery. Talk with him there. Go on believing what he
says, go on believing everything. If you do, then I will walk
joyfully down to my own sweet end, and gaze up in wonder at the trees
and stars. They have sustained me all my life. It is time I returned
What bright hammer was I swinging? That
is not the question. You hold the hammer now. Do not be afraid. I can
hear it ringing. You are like a god standing at his forge, with
powerful arms and chest and shoulders, mad and black with soot, with
eyes that see the world and all the savage joy that is in it — the
coursing rivers, the wild tribes of men, the snow-covered mountains
and desolate valleys vibrant and teeming with prehistoric life. It is
up to you to make your vision sing. Make the sky your bride, and the
earth will be your pillow. Take cosmic pride in all you say and do.
Fear not your own perfection, for you come by it rightfully. Do not
listen to the ministers of failure, who promise redemption for their
imagined sins. They are bitter and small, unequal to living, the
miller’s dross. Instead, bathe them in your sunshine. It is what
they least desire. Lift them up against their will, let them see
their faces in your mirror.
Outside, the weather has turned cold
again. Spring came, then frost blackened the tender growth. The
vineyard is an orderly congregation of old men standing naked. Nature
will clothe them a second time, but there will be no grapes this
year. I might never again hold a grape upon my tongue, crush it
between my teeth, and absorb its juice. When you walk the countryside
in search of poems, ponder this strange truth. Let it penetrate your
being, let its wild seed take root.
The world is yours, my friend. Seize
it. Suck gladly at its breast. Be a field for our slowly ripening
dreams. Always give your best. As your brother, as a man victorious
yet cast asunder, I exhort you to stride through the cosmos, sowing
your stars. It is an act befitting the god you are.
Now blissfully adrift, there is no
question of weightlessness. Now working the laces on my worn out
shoes, none of gravity. Now musing on the trials of the past, none of
anxiety. Now present in the present while it lasts, I, every bit a
dandelion, bid good seed godspeed my deed of joyous carelessness. And
may you, my love, my friend, my confidante, my child, granite that and crevice
this, and I promise that, wherewhenever I am blown, will be my wish.
In this week leading up to my sixtieth
birthday, I have had multiple interviews with the mad artist who made
me, and asked him, and her — for they are both simultaneously, and
in turn — not whether the current version of me represents any
desired perfection, but if it gives them satisfaction — in a word,
are you pleased, dear Madame, or am I soon to be improved in a
brighter more colorful draft with more faithful lines — or if not
more faithful, kind Sir, more deeply revealing? — or are you, as I
suspect, not quite finished works of art yourselves, because I am the
mad artist painting you? Let it be grave-gray or sky-blue, whatever
the answer — and I expect and wish for none — may I here, at
least, express my gratitude?
Isn’t it wonderful how we remember
the memories of others, and how those memories become our own, and in
turn are passed along? Take, for example, this one from my father’s
Depression Era childhood on the farm:
His mother goes out to use the
outhouse, and while she is inside, her son rains clods on that humble
splintery shelter — upon which salute she comes out roaring and
chases him through the yard, past the barn, under the mulberry tree,
he laughing, she cursing, threatening, loving him, her proud glad
heart grateful for the foolish exercise. And not just once, but
dozens of times.
And now they are gone and I am nearing
my sixtieth birthday.
It is all a painting of you, the
faithful mirror replied . . . .
A tiny ladybug — the smallest, I’m
sure, I’ve ever seen — the eraser on the end of a pencil would be
a roomy perch for five or six of her size, not much bigger than the
spots on an adult — somehow got inside my shirt. I was working
outside, watering a few things, pulling a few weeds, and so on —
didn’t brush up against anything — made it rain on the
strawberries — thought heaven-scented waterfall thoughts — wet,
shaded stones from the river nearby — long dashes, eyelashes, a
woodnymph’s cry — undid my shirt in the house and out she tumbled
— I helped her outside, admiring how durable she was as she moved
off unfazed toward the big potted jade plant on our front step.
I’m beginning to think
like this jade plant in the mist
a jeweled leaf for each
(The four-line poem “Traveler,”
from Songs and Letters, November 16, 2008)