New poem: I see the snow has fallen

Woodcut (detail), Hiroshige, from "Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido," 1835

Finally, a poem fresh from the oven.

I see the snow has fallen

I see the snow has fallen overnight,
pure and shining as the New Jerusalem
set down outside my kitchen window.

Cupping a white mug of black coffee,
I peer into woods white as angels’ wings.
Each limb, every twig bears a fragile froth of glory.

Now, before the sander rumbles through
and the school bus intrudes its bright yellow racket,
before the wind rises to knock all askew–all is well.

One quiet moment, as in between the breathing in
and the long exhalation, to savor what day could be,
before it slushes down into what day will be.

Dale Hobson, February 28, 2013

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New poem: Trail of Tears

Ice: Greg Lago wood engraving

Sliding in at the last minute again with an assignment poem written for tonight’s St. Lawrence Area Poets (SLAP) meeting. The topical assignment for the month: write about cold.

 

Trail of Tears

The snow, fine and thick as smoke,
taken sideways by a cutting wind,
fills in the tracks weary feet made
on the journey into exile.

Soon it will be as if they never were,
as those who walked the Trail of Tears
have vanished, except in schoolbooks.
So many, taken by the cold.

Hunched and ragged, with nothing
in common but misery and need,
they stand together without speaking
where footsteps make an end.

They too have been ejected from homes,
separated from their livelihoods,
forced away from warmth and light
into the white limbo of winter.

Faces numb and pale in the wind,
all gooseflesh where thin jackets gape,
fumble-fingered and leaden-footed,
they smoke behind the dumpster.

Dale Hobson, 1/10/12

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Night Conference: two revisions

In the original draft of Night Conference (previous post) I used the device of casting the poem in the second person. I was dealing with an inside-the-head moment–a situation where, as a writer, I frequently go off the rails. By using the second person voice, I was able to treat myself more as a character seen from outside. It is also a device that (at least rhetorically) narrows the audience to one. If successfully done, this can create a more intimate space for the reader to inhabit.

But my wife Terry, my frequent and insightful first reader, found it to be an obstacle. Where identification with the poem is incomplete, the second person voice is dissonant. The strategy that allowed me to get the poem roughed out the way I wanted it, no longer served. In my first revision, I cast the poem back into the first person.

Also, noting how the original draft often finds a walking rhythm, then loses it, I went for a shorter line with a more even meter, in order to create better momentum.

Night Conference, edit 1

The single room is quiet
but my head is buzzing,
so I take the elevator
down to the wide lobby,
out past the hotel bar,
too jet-lagged to suffer
chatter from a stranger.

Out past the doorman,
away from the avenue
brawling with traffic,
onto a narrow side street
where no one is walking,
where a windowsill cat
watches a pigeon sleeping
head tucked into its wing.

I leave behind cell phone,
car keys, as I left behind
home, village, work and kin,
the lights and the traffic,
seeking—who can say?

Wishing that the night
would swallow my thinking,
as it swallowed the light
over the western ocean,
the way it swallows up
the television muttering
as I pass below a window.

Block by block by block
I try to walk it off,
til sleep might beckon
like light from an open door.

Just me and my shadow,
that lengthens, shortens,
like the beat of a candle
as I leave one pool of light
and walk on to the next.
Just me and the brick echo
ticking back an afterthought
to every wakeful step.

While I was more happy with the revision than with the draft, I found that the first person didn’t ring quite right either. Damn pronouns! So I used another device that avoids pronouns altogether, the imperative. The “understood” pronoun is back to the second person–you. But the effect here is, I think different. It feels more insomniac, with a detached mental “I” making demands of a sleepless body–the understood “you.”

Night Conference, edit 2

The single room is quiet
but the head is buzzing,
so walk downstairs
into the bright lobby,
and out past the hotel bar,
too jet-lagged to suffer
the chatter of strangers.

Pass the dozing doorman;
get away from the avenue
brawling with traffic,
to the numbered streets
where no one is waking,
save a cat in a window
watching a pigeon sleeping,
head tucked under its wing.

Leave behind the phone,
the keys, as village, work,
and kin are all now behind;
leave the lights and traffic,
to seek out—who can say?

Hope, perhaps, that night
might quench this restlessness,
the way it swallowed the light
above the western ocean,
as it now swallows the babble
of television unwatched
by unseen sleepers within.

Block by block by block,
walk–try to walk it off,
hoping sleep might beckon
like light from an open door.

Just a body and its shadow,
(that lengthens and shortens
like the beating of a candle)
passing under light after light.
Just shoes and the brick echo
ticking back its afterthought
to every wakeful step.

I’m not sure whether I am done with this not or not. Let me know what you think of the various versions in a comment below. If you would like to contribute a poem in progressive iterations, with comments on your own revision process, send it to dale@ncpr.org, and I will post it as a guest entry.

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New poem: Night Conference

SLAP (St. Lawrence Area Poets) monthly meeting in a few minutes. So once again my inspiration is peer pressure. Can’t show up empty-handed. This comes from my rare solo forays away from the North Country, usually to attend a conference in an unfamiliar city. I am, I confess, a streetwalker of sorts–the insomniac sort. Dale Hobson

Night Conference

The hotel room is sterile, quiet–too quiet
for your head to be a-buzz—so you go
down the elevator to the lobby, out past
the bar, too jet-lagged to endure the chatter
of strangers, past the doorman and away
from the avenue brawling with late traffic,
onto the side streets, where no one is walking,
where cats gaze out windows in meditation
at pigeons on ledges, head beneath wing.

You leave behind the phone and car keys
as you left behind home and village, work
and kin, the lights and traffic, seeking—
who can say? Wishing that the night would
swallow all this thinking, the way it swallowed
the light from over the western ocean, the way
it swallows the mutter of a television after
you pass beneath an open window.

Block after block, you try to walk out
of yourself, to reach some place where
sleep could beckon like an open door.
Just you and your shadow, that lengthens
and shortens like the slow beat of a candle
as you pass beneath the endless streetlights.
Just you and the brick echo, clicking back
like an afterthought every wakeful step.

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Assignment: a poem about the “cloud”

I wrote this yesterday as well, in order to be able to show my face at the St. Lawrence Area Poets (SLAP) meeting with a completed assignment. The assignment comes from the newest computer buzz-word, “the cloud” indicating a non-specific location in a network of servers that contains a person’s online stuff–a sort of digital extension of the self. “What’s in your cloud?”--DH

Clouds

First, the ancestor cloud, stratus,
the lattice of DNA, recording each
previous incarnation back to the amoeba.
Here remain mother and father,
instructing the body to grow. Here
is Aunt Anne’s eye and Grandpa’s jaw.

Second, cumulonimbus, the thunderhead
of memory, each impulse, each sensation
of the body, every turn of thought
a mote of condensation, a nexus of charge
that accumulates tension, building up
to lightning that twitches out in action.

Third, the cirrus cloud of culture,
wispy memes of attitude and style,
the ghost of every book ever read,
the music and images, flat phantasms,
instructional manuals, interviews with
the dead, this collective upload to eternity.

This is the way the water circulates,
rising and falling, and rising again.
This is how we distinguish ourselves,
becoming one thing and not another,
a discrete chunk awash in anonymous stew.
Any shape can arise when watching clouds.

Dale Hobson

10/11/11

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New poem: Question Period

I wrote this yesterday afternoon after being driven from my office by multiple cement drills boring into the wall to anchor a new layer of brick. Sure was more peaceful out back. –DH

Question Period

On the grass by the satellite dish
a number of small yellow butterflies
flit between an equal number of dandelions,
gathering up a last collection of fall nectar.

I set aside my obsessive self-absorption–
Who I am? Why do I always do the things
I do?
–and consider instead these smaller
mysteries on the October air.

Are they yellow because the dandelions
are yellow?–and if so, why two shades lighter?
Will they deepen in color the longer they sip?
Would this butterfly be red, if it fed upon roses?

And why do they all go from one dandelion
to another, taking only a morsel from each,
when each could take its fill from just one bloom,
sparing fragile wings a lot of pointless labor?

The Amish man, walking across the lot
to harness up the pair of chestnut mares
he stashed behind the doctors’ dumpster
would probably say, “God made them that way.”

And even his doctor might agree, or even me.
But that only pushes the question back a bit.
Eventually I have to ask it: Who is God?–
Why does he always do the things he does?

That’s way deep for break time on a sunny day,
so I resume my contemplation of butterflies.
The Amish man regards the twin brown rumps
in front of his face, then gives the reins a flick.

Dale Hobson
10/11/11

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Notes on Just Before the Fall and How it Slipped way

How it Slipped Away was written in a single session shortly after waking from the dream described. I see it as not only about the specific occasion, but about all those times when a notion comes along that could make for a solid poem, but that slip away before the effort is made. Memo to self: Keep notebook (or iPad) handy. It is also about those poems that are simply beyond one’s scope–the vision is there, but the work just falls short. This is most poems, to a greater or lesser extent. Be reconciled to disappointment; but don’t become reconciled to less than your best attempt.

This poem taught me something new, in that the visual elements of dreams remain to me pretty much intact, but the sound and sense, in this case the song, I rarely retain. This tells me something about my brain. I’ve talked with musicians who have had the opposite experience–no visual recollection of a dream, but a perfect recollection of melody.

Just Before the Fall was heavily revised to make the version seen here. Two ending stanzas were removed, and replaced by the last one presented here. I had had this image, while surveying my home domain, of an emperor looking out upon his realm. That this particular realm was looking decidedly down at heels took me to the notion of the rise and fall of empires. My intent was to be a little light-hearted and self deprecating, but Gibbon is pretty dismal stuff.

The first version took the Gibbon progression to its logical conclusion, total ruination. Terry, my life mate and best first reader, said the poem was pretty good but a real bummer. This is an example of a time when following a poetic strategy leads far from one’s intent. Sometimes the result is a better poem, so I wouldn’t recommend against following the poem’s lead. But in this case, the result was not better (or worse for that matter), but it didn’t do the work I intended, and I could see an equally good turn that would. I may not have improved the poem in revision, but I did it no harm either, and brought it back in line with what I wanted.

It occurs to me that I may have abandoned imposing my will on vast tracts of real estate, but I have not given up on trying to enforcing my will upon the page. A subject, perhaps, for a future effort.

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New poem: Just Before the Fall

Just Before the Fall

Once this side of the field was cleared
of sumac all the way back to the wall,
the sprawling japonica was beaten back
to where the mower could keep it in check.
Dead limbs were lopped, grape unravelled,
leaves raked, and all laid neatly on the pile.

Each year a little more in order, the yard
expanded outward like the progress
of empire, as shown on successive
overlays in World Book Encyclopedia.
There was a fenced garden square, new
ornamentals, a Buddha shaded by lilac.

And so it stayed for a while, the way
the tide hangs at the high water mark
for a beat, neither rising nor falling,
while you moon contentedly at the beauty
of the sea. So the Romans must have felt
within the pristine marble of Constantinople.

But in these latter days, the signs of decline
are clear, sumac and japonica resurgent,
whole pine trees that lie where they fell.
Buddha leans now on his overgrown plinth,
like a ruin of Numenor in the wastes
of Middle Earth. The tide turned long ago.

Slow retreat has taken sway, the outer
provinces sacrificed to bulwark the center.
I now concede the stone wall will never
be re-squared, the unpruned apple will give
its small blemished bounty to the deer.
It was hubris to ever think otherwise.

The sugar maple turns early, as grandiose
a display as any I might have devised. The sun
is just as warm where the wraparound deck
might have been. Drowsing in this buttery light,
I can’t recall now why I ever turned conquistador,
or later, turned away from the far frontier.

Dale Hobson
9/22/11

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New poem: How it Slipped Away

In my dream a slender young woman
with short black hair and large dark eyes,
wearing a loose black caftan with flowers
picked out upon it in embroidery floss–
green, blue, purple, yellow and red–
perched upon the railway ticket counter
and sang to the clerk this astonishing song.

Its melody was devastatingly sweet.
The verses–well-turned, heartful–
broke to a soaring chorus, and once
to a meandering bridge that found its way
back to tonic through an odd modal twist.
The many stanzas slipped from memory
as soon as sung, and the yellow cheat sheet,
to which she twice referred, was a scribble.

Waking near to tears, the shape of the tune
at least remained. But I couldn’t keep hold,
having neither staff paper nor aptitude
for musical notation. Nor could I have sung
the thing, lacking range and a proper grasp
of relative pitch. So vision outstrips strength,
and now even the gist is lost, leaving only this.

9/10/11

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Revising Men at the Library

I was quite pleased with “Men at the Library” when I first posted it, hot from my fevered brow. But I soon realized that I had made a simple mistake in strategy that weakened the poem. Repeatedly, I talked about the characters as types, in plural, rather than as particular individuals–even abstracting my own presence. “This one” is almost always stronger in a poem than “this sort.” The one, we experience; the sort, we extrapolate. Abstraction is almost always weaker than depiction.

So here is the poem again, revised–and to my ear–much improved.

Dale Hobson
9/3/11

Men at the Library

The youngest man at the library makes war
with unknown adversaries all across the planet.
Behind the cubicle wall he flexes the iron thews
of his imagination, making mutton of all comers.

The next came a-jog behind a double-wide stroller,
to nursemaid towheads promised a good story.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, he murmurs
baritone replies to a steady stream of soprano inquiry.

There is the unemployed man, who emails
resumes like candle lanterns set afloat, and
the discontented man, who grinds his many axes
with reluctant pen pals in elected office.

An older man relaxes behind the paper, happy
to be out of the house, for whatever reason,
and despite the fact that the very same paper
was on his doorstep when he went out.

Saturday in the library, one can be undisturbed
among company, a particular masculine pleasure,
like holding court, but without the nuisance
of issuing orders or hearing pleas for judgment.

Then there is me–a bookish man–basking
in the convivial presence of my peers
(as represented by the long rows of volumes)
who spent their lifetimes scratching at the page.

In time I may become like the eldest, who nods
in the best chair, absorbing an obscure tome
(apparently by mental telepathy)–whose friends
are long buried, whose labor is no longer required.

Even dull company is company, I suppose,
when days go on and on like Tolstoy translations.
Somewhere back among these stacks, no doubt,
is a book–cogent but neglected–upon this very topic.

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