While the poet slept . . .

Another brief retreat from the world of sport.

Last year I spoke to a college writing class and, perhaps unsuccessfully, tried to relate to its students the relevance of poetry in their lives. It can be present, I told them, in the lyrics from their iPods or the taps of their Twitter posts. I told them at some time or other they will find themselves needing to say something important, to answer a question, to offer advice to someone, to say the right thing, to a child, to a friend, a spouse, to someone they’ve fallen in love with, to anyone, and in that moment they will want to be a poet, to say something that can be held, remembered, appreciated, something with meaning beyond its words.

But I don’t think anything quite got their attention like one little story, of a farmer and poet who decided several years ago to let it be known that he was fed up with the choices for governor and that he simply wasn’t voting in the primary out of protest.

We all know people who don’t vote. But when this man, Wendell Berry, said he was sitting an election out, people fretted. Many were upset. Even some who understood were upset. They wrote letters to the newspaper editor. They talked about it on the radio.

One missing vote out of millions, yet it mattered. Hands went up. Why such a big deal?

Why, indeed? It’s 2011. Everyone has a blog. What can an old fellow without an i-Anything or a Facebook account say that should stop a state to pause and think? It was a big deal, I told them, because of the voice he has become and, yes, the life he has lived but more even than that, because of  the words he has sewn.

You never know how much weight your words can carry until you hang all your mind and heart on them, particularly when they are rooted to where you stand.

Last night, the writer, poet and farmer from Henry County slept on the floor outside the Kentucky governor’s office with a handful of others as part of a protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining.

I’m not going to talk about coal. Berry and his companions are far more effective voices on their own behalf, and the governor has no trouble laying out the other side. The coal debate has plenty of fuel.

I want to gather around another fire, this notion that Berry, and Kentucky authors Silas House, Erik Reece and others, could wander into the governor’s office, ask to speak about something, and touch off a debate.

I work for a newspaper. “Print is dead,” I hear almost daily. The words I write are not even called by their name, but have been given the label “content,” as if they were toothpaste or flour or any other substance that fills a container.

“Print is dead” they tell me, and it is hard to argue given the mounting cultural evidence, even the financial realities. It’s easy to forget, in fact, that there are realities even beyond those.

I don’t know who will win in the final analysis in Mr. Berry’s attempt at a dignified dialogue. But it is evidence of something else, in any event: Regardless of whether print is dead, words are not.

A farmer-poet goes to the governor’s office talks, sits, sleeps, pulls out a copy of “The Tempest” and reads, and a state turns its head and eyes, if only for a moment, though one would hope for longer.

Wrote Shakespeare, in that very play:

Faith, sir, you need not fear. When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts? which now we find
Each putter-out of five for one will bring us
Good warrant of.

And, perhaps, a few more words, these by a Kentuckian, who took up the subject of a mountain, and trying to see clearly. From Robert Penn Warren:

In the Mountains

II. Fog [A]

White, white, luminous but
Blind — fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains

Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I

Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,

Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.

The heart, in this silence, beats.

For more updates on this continuing story, see Kentucky Rising and The Courier-Journal.

Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

* * *

In the air, these lines, from The New Yorker:

“The company (AOL) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty five dollars a month to get online and check their email.” (Annals of Communication, by Ken Auletta, Jan. 24, 2011, p. 32.)

So here we have a major American communications company afloat only through the ignorance or laziness of the public.

Sounds about right.  But eighty percent of its profits from people who don’t realize they don’t need the service?

Let us call to mind a former Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford that he does not need.”

No, wait. That quotation has been doctored. But I can hardly be blamed. Via email just before Christmas, I received an urgent communication from the online store at Walden Pond that I could still order in time for holiday shipping.

I surveyed the merchandise and felt rich, indeed. I could afford to let it alone.

* * *

I should not be too hard on AOL. I work for a company whose flagship paper, USA Today, derived half its daily circulation as of April 2009 from major hotel chains. I don’t know which is more discomforting — depending for survival on the oblivious inertia of the American consumer, or on an item he steps over on his way to a continental breakfast.

* * *

A final stop, from wandering thoughts to cogent. Robert Lowell. Out of a group titled Mexico. Let’s let him tie things together:

4.

South of Boston, south of Washington,
south of any bearing . . . I walked the glazed moonlight:
dew on the grass and nobody about,
drawn on by my unlimited desire,
like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring. . .  .
We moved far, bill and cow, could one imagine
cattle obliviously pairing six long days:
up road and down, then up again passing the same
brick garden wall, stiff spines of hay stuck in my hide;
and always in full sight of everyone,
from the full sun to silhouetting sunset,
pinned by undimming lights of hurried cars. . . .
You’re gone; I am learning to live in history.
What is history? What you cannot touch.

Footprints of a wandering mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I don’t make them. I intended to make an exception this year when a local magazine asked me to submit a few, and I did take a thoughtful stab at it, but to no good purpose. I am, it seems, resolute, in my anti-resolution stance.

My recent resolve has nothing to do with New Year’s. I have been trying lately to pay attention to where my mind is going when it wanders, and to focus less on bringing it back to where I want it than in following to see where it goes. Often it goes back. Sometimes it goes nowhere. In the absence of other things, you will find some of its wanderings here. As in the following . . .

* * *

Something got loose in the dishwasher last night. It was beating in time with the machine, a deep thump against the waterproof wall, like a primitive rainforest drum pounding out a prayer.

No, I wasn’t under the influence when, for a flash, I pictured the dishes dancing inside, spoons splashing.

There is a tribal tendency in all of us to return to some kind of roots, or to be taken away at a moment’s notice.

I have taken to running the same route every evening, so as to pass, purposefully, the same honeysuckle bush by the side of the road, out of place against the approaching strip malls, even though in the wintertime its scent stays hidden. Still, in warmer months, I made out the following beat in my footsteps:

Honeysuckle by the highway
one hundred paces past the
coin car wash, two hundred sixty
from the drug store sign,
halfway between
Home Depot and home,
between zero and sixty, its
fragrance drawn out by the draft
of sport-utility distractions.
In the driver’s seat, head bumping
the truck ceiling, my father’s lap,
his foot on the pedals, steering wheel
knob in my hand, jerking away
with each new dip of meadow,
he climbs out to unchain a gate.
I turn the knob on a broken radio,
skipping past silent stations,
the straight orange tuner unmoving,
like the haggard heifer, rolling her eyes
while I wait in the summer scent
of gasoline, of manure, of grass,
of tobacco, of honeysuckle.

* * *

I don’t like poems where you wind up where you started, so there’s a problem with that little set of lines. But that tends to happen when you wander. You take off to run three miles and wind up going back 35 years.

After the flood

Floods come in different depths and types. This one came from the water heater.

The water rose maybe an inch, then receded into the carpet.

My office was the least-damaged of the basement rooms. Still, today my job on the first day of vacation was to empty it, which meant the evacuation of hundreds of books from their shelves to uncertain stacks in the hallway.

I wasn’t going to write anything on vacation, then I walked down tonight and saw them standing against the wall, waiting as if in a bus station or airport terminal.

What happens when you have to move your books is that you run into people you did not expect to run into. Paul Guest, a poet who is paralyzed, sits in my hands. I haven’t seen him in ages. But here he is with a long, lightning-rod of a sentence that halts the cleanup effort, at the beginning of a poem titled, “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation.”

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch’s brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.

But I can’t go to page seven. I am amazed at how many of my notebooks stop when they are three-quarters full. What does that say about me? And then here’s Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days & Collect,” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” and what business do they have writing better in their notebooks than most people do for show?

Whitman was a newspaperman first. So was Hemingway. That he went undamaged by the waters should be understood. And on another shelf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Somewhere on my desk is a newspaper lead he wrote for El Ecspectador, a Colombian newspaper, in a series about a disease-ridden part of the country. Yes, here it is, “Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'”

That’s a lead.

My daughter, Katie, just the other night was looking at my high school yearbook and saying, “You look funny.” I pick it up now and flip over a few pages to my friend Bill Nelson, who is battling cancer in brain and lungs and God knows where else. Doctors told him his chances were less than ten percent a couple of weeks ago. Try anyway, he told them. He wants to live. I look at his picture and pray for him.

We all look so small in our little yearbook photos. I felt so small then. So many big rooms.

Now, in this small office, I do not feel small. I like little rooms. What does that mean?

I think of New York City hotel rooms, the tiny ones. The Mansfield Hotel, that’s the last one I stayed in. A beautiful place. It was a couple of doors down from the original New Yorker offices, and I liked to think about E.B. White and Co. walking down the sidewalk to work.

In the 1950s, an impeccably dressed man named Maz von Gurach lived in the hotel. Some people think he was the model for Jay Gatsby, used by the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also a painter visited there named John Butler Yeats, whose son, William Butler, was just about to start cranking out some of his best poetry in Ireland.

Yeats (W.B.) is here too, but I’ll be damned if I can find him.

The goal on vacation is not to think much about sports, and certainly not to write about them. But every Monday night at 8 o’clock or so, I go on a local radio sports talk program. Tonight we talked about Tiger Woods. Just a day ago, as a sports columnist, I wrote about Tiger, and said that he needs to adjust his game to his age, to evolve the way the great ones do, whatever that means (and only the great ones really can understand it). But tonight as I talked about him, not so much as a sports columnist but as a guy surrounded by all these impatient books, I felt a voice inside me saying, “Just leave him alone. Let him figure it out.”

Those voices don’t talk too loudly when deadline is approaching and you need a topic. The one thing that pops into my head as I hang up the phone and go back to cleaning the office is that the new home he’s building in Florida is 9,700 square feet. Who needs that much space? His kids could visit and need two days to find him. That’d be my advice to Tiger. Get yourself a smaller room.

The news on the radio says that BP has capped its gushing undersea oil well, but that now the fear is that oil could begin to seep up through the ocean floor. Which sounds about right. There’s always something else. I’ll probably pull up this carpet to find mold. And even once the mold is scrubbed, something will emerge. I’m pretty sure the water heater’s leaking again.

Paul Guest has written a great opening line in his poem, “Audio Commentary Track 2.” It begins: “As you can already see, everything is f- -ked.”

He may know something. His shelf was awfully close to the carpet.

A New Orleans appreciation

I wrote this after Katrina wrecked New Orleans, drawn on a trip I’d taken there some time ago. Has nothing to do with football or the Super Bowl, but a lot to do with affection for the place.

NEW ORLEANS, 2005

It has always made me happy
that the river by my banks
runs south to you,
toward good times and
one last fling before
heading out to sea.

I liked to come to you
and say “Tchoupitoulas Street,” and
“Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez.”
I recall the taste of warm beignets
in morning wrapping their arms around
the lingering burn of bourbon.

Once beneath your streetlights,
I stared for a long time
through a gallery window
at a painting of wildflowers
in a graveyard.
A girl came out
of the locked door
with short black hair
and gulf blue eyes
and kissed me,
leaving red azalea on my cheek.
Then she smiled and walked away.

I wondered, when I saw the water,
where she went.
I always remember her
when I think of you —
a kiss in the night
that fades to dream by morning.
I wonder if she
still can smile, or you,
and whether wildflowers
still grace the graveyards
in the sunrise.

Philosophically inspired

A couple of poems, take them or leave them. The first is part of a series inspired by reading great books (or writers) in common places. Hence some rather unusual titles (“Shakespeare at the Waffle House,” “Neitzche at the Mall,” etc.) And this one.

ARISTOTLE AT THE Y

The greatest thing,
I read,
is to be master
of metaphor,
pumping my
elliptical machine.
Looking up
I see
a woman,
thighs bulging,
struggling on a
stairclimber.

The following is not of the same series, but is what I imagine it might have looked like had Rene Descartes scribbled down a love poem. Haphazardly. In English. In the present day.

DESCARTES IN LOVE

You weren’t here.
You never tugged at my shirt
when it was time to go to bed.
There was no smell of coffee
at night when I liked to arrange
my doubts while watching you
turn the pages of a magazine.
I could have sworn I used to wake
in the night and look for
your shoulder in the dark bed,
confirming it with a kiss.
I must have been mistaken.

First post of 2010

For my first post here of 2010, I demonstrate what happens when you read Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney while watching people scramble to find power outlets for their cell phones in a crowded airport terminal during a weather delay. For those familiar with Heaney’s poem, “Blackberry Picking,” please forgive the little bit of pilfering.

BLACKBERRY PLUGGING

Late August, given heavy rain and wind
blackberries come to receive and send.
At first just one, a frantic purple face
scanning baseboards, looking for a place
to insert plug, to feed a lust for power
among others, eyes downcast, expressions sour.
Their terminal inspections spread like vines,
corded hands outstretched, exposing tines,
twin lances bared in their ophthalmic brawl
which covers every post and food court wall.
Seeking what? A recharge to device?
To reconnect to love or thought or life?
Skies darken and more come slightly bowed,
when noticed they respond, their visage cowed
at having been caught up in such pursuit,
as if their souls would soon be set to mute.

Late Valentine’s Day poem

I’ve been slacking on the “Friday Poem” on here — and everything else. Here’s one written some years back in the New York Public Library.

Rose Reading Room

You didn’t know today
when you woke up,
stumbled out the door
and slouched onto the train,
that you later would
sit down at a table to read
and become a poem.

Perhaps you would not
have worn the frayed jacket,
or that Elmer hat with the flaps
fighting to subdue brunette thickets
whose underbrush you keep
brushing away with
the back of your hand.
You probably would have
worn makeup, or jewelry,
sat up straight instead of
head resting on hand
resting on elbow, and your
lips would not move slightly.

But where would be
the poetry in that?
It would be elsewhere,
in someone else’s hat and hair.
Not here, in you, the messy
girl reading Shakespeare,
Ophelia with an iPod,
poetic enough for a couplet:

For in your unkempt look and earnest eyes
lies beauty that the book lifts from disguise.

Late Valentine's Day poem

I’ve been slacking on the “Friday Poem” on here — and everything else. Here’s one written some years back in the New York Public Library.

Rose Reading Room

You didn’t know today
when you woke up,
stumbled out the door
and slouched onto the train,
that you later would
sit down at a table to read
and become a poem.

Perhaps you would not
have worn the frayed jacket,
or that Elmer hat with the flaps
fighting to subdue brunette thickets
whose underbrush you keep
brushing away with
the back of your hand.
You probably would have
worn makeup, or jewelry,
sat up straight instead of
head resting on hand
resting on elbow, and your
lips would not move slightly.

But where would be
the poetry in that?
It would be elsewhere,
in someone else’s hat and hair.
Not here, in you, the messy
girl reading Shakespeare,
Ophelia with an iPod,
poetic enough for a couplet:

For in your unkempt look and earnest eyes
lies beauty that the book lifts from disguise.

Friday poem

This one was written in a surgical waiting room. I was struck by the little square coaster-pagers that they gave waiting family members, like those you’d get at a restaurant to alert you to your table being ready.

Waiting Room

Her clothes in
a clear plastic bag
at his side.
He’s been given a pager,
as if waiting for
a restaurant table.
But it is she
upon the table.
He watches for the
little lights, listens
for his name to be called,
to learn whether
he is still in a party of two.