Another old poet has died

Donald Hall, 14th U.S. Poet Laureate, 2006-2007. Photo: Library of Congress

The poet Donald Hall died this week. Never say he “passed away;” he loathed euphemism. Though we never met except as a reader does, upon the page, I felt a kindred spirit at work in him. Being the age of my father, you might say Hall was the sort I wanted to be when I grew up – should that day ever come.

I liked his dedication to place, firmly planted as he was upon the farm, Eagle Pond, where his great-grandfather settled in 1865. And I loved the clear intent to communicate in ordinary language to ordinary people that his work displays. He believed that plain language sufficed to convey the most complex mixtures of thought and emotion.

“Everything important always begins from something trivial,” Hall said. Though he often achieved it, he did not insist on depth as a key value for individual works of art. To be beautiful was sufficient to justify any poem. And as I age myself, I appreciate being witness to his own journeys through love and loss, and to his ripening acceptance of the necessity of mortality, even his own.

As a writer, he said, “I expect my immortality will last about six seconds after my funeral.” In that, I expect, he was incorrect.

Here’s a poem for Donald Hall.

Another old poet has died

for Donald Hall

Another old poet has died, no surprise,
being made of meat, not stone.

But such is death doubled, taking
what unpenned works along.

The reader must begin again, seeking
some younger and stranger voice

that might elicit from him a grunt
in the silence of the library,

that might make him whisper
in wonder, “How perfect, how true.”

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Twenty-five below

Photo: Max Pixel, public domain

Photo: Max Pixel, public domain

Calling it cold doesn’t quite cover it. One more night into the double-digits below zero and then finally the temperatures will start to go back up. It’s been a long time to just call it a “snap.” Mostly, folks just hunker down or venture out only as far as the drive to start the car – (if it will start) – then back in to warm up while the engine warms up, too.

But it can also have a mysterious allure, especially at night, in the clear air under the big moon, that can draw one out the door. Here’s a new poem for a bone-cold night.

Twenty-five below

I walk out into dope-slap cold
clad in a space-suit of layers
under sparking stars, bold
beside an arc lamp moon.
All silent, but for creaking snow
and cracking trees which loom,
making unintelligible gestures,
black against midnight blue.

Somewhere I saw it written,
in the hieroglyphs of frost
which crept across the window,
in the snow code mice write
in panic under shadow
of the owl. Some message only
moonlight unveils, only walking
wakes, only cold makes plain.

Breathing daggers, exhaling smoke,
I shamble across the back yard
casting about for the arcane sign,
to find a doe a-shiver in the sumac
who startles back into pine.
Startled, too, I step back toward
the distant porch light’s shine.
I could catch my death out here.

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Leaving for work in November

Photo: Pauline Eccles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Pauline Eccles, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Whether you love your work or not, it can be hard to get started some days. And never more than during the dimmer  months of the year. I can only conclude that that’s why God made coffee.

Leaving for work in November

Not yet dawn, but already geese racket
on the river, marshaling their convoys
for the next stage south.

The leaves are all down, but for a few
bright tatters that will emerge in sunrise
like an empty street after Mardi Gras.

Homeless deer nose through the leavings
of the apple tree while my coffee brews
and the news honks away on the radio.

After the curtain falls on fall and before
it rises on winter is too long
an intermission, November.

The house lights come up in gray sky
over brown ground slick with rain.
I blink the world back into focus.

The geese all rise at once, loud and full
of purpose, up the aisles of air, guided
by some lodestone in the brain.

I keep to my seat, thinking,
one more cup of coffee, one more,
and then I’ll go.

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Eclipse voyage

Captain Radio Bob aboard the liesure research vessel Little Queenie. Eclipse expedition, August 21, 2017.

Captain Radio Bob aboard the liesure research vessel Little Queenie. Eclipse expedition, August 21, 2017.

On Monday while Brian Mann was soldiering up the heights of Mount Marcy with eclipse glasses and sound kit, others from the station were embarking from Morristown aboard Radio Bob’s leisure research vessel Little Queenie to experience the eclipse from the downstream end of the Thousand Islands. Here is a poetical postcard.

Eclipse voyage

Having basked enough for now
I walk off into pine shadow, leaving
the boys to snorkel around the boat.
At a picnic table the others swap
turns peering into a small hand-held
device made from a box of Raisin Bran
and other common household products
while the moon bites into the sun.

The dimming light has gone strange,
like the golden hour, David says, but not.

At the upstream end of Sparrow Island
the anchor of the Lillie Parsons trails
its chain into dancing water.
Standing there, I imagine the squall,
the chancy currents where she grounded
in 1877, imagine the chain leading 65 feet
below to where her 500 tons of coal
strew like dark stars across the bottom.

I view an image of the eaten sun
through a lattice of my fingers;
through the lattice of the past,
I see the schooner break its bones
upon the rocks. Until upstream
a laker sounds five blasts, dispelling
reverie, eclipsing this pinhole
view through space and time.

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Growing up in the North Country and with family well inland in Pennsylvania and Indiana, I was twelve before I ever saw the ocean. I couldn’t get my mind around it. I still can’t, but I find myself drawn there whenever the opportunity arises.

So I spent the week before this with my wife in southern Maine, along one of our favorites stretches of the land’s margin.

Along The Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine. Photo: Dale Hobson


Shorebirds run back and forth in time
with the surf that gains a few inches
with each pulse of rising tide. Benches
along The Marginal Way are full today –
finally some sun and that unbroken view
from here clear to the curve of the earth.

What is near is sweet: sun, wind, rock
breaking water, water breaking rock,
plains of marsh grass, bright beach rose
and gnarled cedar, your arm around me,
the cries of gulls, the trill of songbirds.
But my eyes seek beyond the breakers.

The ocean drags at me as the moon
drags at the sea. Just to see is to be
immersed; just to hear to be in synch.
“Attention,” Mary Oliver writes,
“is the beginning of devotion.” And
my attention is drawn to distances.

Winding our way back, I drift in
and out of our conversation, distracted
by the one word the Atlantic booms
without ceasing. I break upon the edge
of understanding it, only to fall away.
The sea, too, finds its limit at the shore.

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Spring of the World

We’re in the fleeting thick of it now—trillium time, apple blossom time. It is only a moment in the wheel of the year, so savor. How quickly a square of chocolate melts in the mouth and is gone. What if you could only have one once a year?

Trillium print by T. Ellen Fisher, c. 1900.

Trillium print by T. Ellen Fisher, c. 1900.

Spring of the world

When the heron is home,
when trillium light the path,
when apple petals dust
the yard and all the leaves
are young, I remember–
we were built for Eden.

This pure cumulus white
against a piercing blue,
light like honey poured
out over rolling hills—
yes, yes–I remember
how it was in Eden.

Would that it could stay,
not boil off into summer,
nor burn with autumn,
nor freeze the long dark.
We were built for Eden
but had to have the world.

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Grateful for April

The long tail of winter is tough on me, not least because I never know when it is done having its fun. And this winter has been tougher than most, one of relentless tumult in the country and the world — raised voices, uncertainty, tense encounters and waiting upon the unpredictable next thing. But mostly — a long, dark, cold, biding time.

There is one moment, however, that signals a sharp divide between winter and the more blessed seasons to come. There may be more weather in the offing, but something, unquestionably, has busted loose.

Photo: Paul VanDerWerf, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Paul VanDerWerf, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

April Light

All day warm wind withered the late fall of snow,
runoff sheeting over still frozen ground, down
a hundred runlets toward the river. A gray day
with low clouds ripping north on bluster from the south.

Yesterday sunny and cold, today cloudy and warm—
weather upside down. All night long south wind
moans, as I read by the bedstand light, sleepless, uneasy,
as if something in me knows what is about to happen.

It starts with a long, loud crack, then grinding, booming–
the whole reservoir welling up, breaking the back of the ice.
The spillway chock-a-block with jostling slabs and roaring water–
ice-out, like a hammer through a plate glass window.

Come morning, I go to see. Snowdrops by the foundation wall
forecast fairer days. The trail down the bank is a slash of mud.
Fast black water churns under a pale sun, milky in clots with slush.
A full-grown cedar hangs by its roots halfway over the dam.

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Listen: The many twists of “The Family Plot”

The Any Music Singers on stage at Pickens Hall in Heuvelton, NY

I had a nice surprise in my office mailbox the other day, a CD of a live performance of a song made by Barb Heller from one of my poems, “The Family Plot,” recorded at Pickens Hall in Heuvelton, NY on May 20, 2016. The song is performed twice, once by Barb accompanying herself on guitar, and once in an acappella choral arrangement by Paul Siskind, who directs The Any Music Singers.

The poem has a back story that reaches into my childhood, when I was taking census of graves in cemeteries across the North Country as a project for Yorker Club in middle school.

Artist Paul Davison with his Five Rivers offering to the Raquette River. My incised haiku reads: All through Stone Valley / snowmelt hammers sandstone flat. / Where does my rage go?

The middle chapters of the story include a collaboration with artist Paul Davison in the late 1970s, where we were creating mixed media works that would be given as votive offerings to the five rivers: St. Lawrence, Oswegatchie, Grasse, Raquette and St. Regis.

“The Family Plot,” based on recollection of one middle school field trip, was written as an offering to the St. Regis. A family burial section in a cemetery overlooking that river was the spark for the original poem:

The Family Plot

I left my lover ‘cross the river
in a house all weathered silver
by the storms bred on the mountains
all around the flowered uplands

where she grazed the brindled cattle
’til her love returned from battle
in the swelter of Manassas
or was lost beneath its grasses.

So she tethered ‘cross the river
a cedar dory weathered silver
softly washed by half moon shimmer
for my midnight ferry over.

From a shelf beside the woodbin
hung my slippers cut from doeskin
and a lamp of scented tallow
for my weary feet to follow.

Now my lover’s weathered silver–
home I came and stayed to claim her.
Here our boys will lay us under
’til they join us come hereafter.

Barb Heller on stage at Pickens Hall. Photo: Lizette Haenel

Some decades later, my colleague and friend at North Country Public Radio, Barb Heller,  was going to a songwriting workshop and was looking for lyrical material to work with. This poem being one of very few that I had written in anything resembling formal structure, I pitched it up, and she knocked it out of the park.

Then, another decade later, when Paul Siskind was looking for lyrical works by local artists that could become the basis for a choral concert by his group, The Any Music Singers, the melody and lyric were ready to hand. It all came together for two performances in 2016, one in the lovingly-restored Pickens Hall in Heuvelton, and another on the campus of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.

I actually don’t read this poem any more at my sporadic public appearances. Thanks to Barb and Paul and the Any Music Singers, it has to be sung now, and I’m not safe to hear except in the shower.

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After the Mardi Gras

After Mardi Gras. Photo: Nick Solari, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

After Mardi Gras. Photo: Nick Solari, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Like many church-goers these days, even at age 63 I find myself on the younger end of the pew in my congregation. The season of Lent began on Wednesday and I have to confess that the practice of giving up something like chocolate for 40 days never made a lot of sense to me, a merely pious exercise.

But observing my elders in the sanctuary, the matter-of-fact way they cope with infirmity, disability and pain, has led me to think differently about appetite and about sacrifice.

After the Mardi Gras

When the pizza box opens, my eye falls first on
the marginally larger piece, the one with the extra
pepperoni. There is something in the mind that is like
a tent caterpillar nest, waiting to burst open and consume
every leaf down to the limb. There will always be another tree.

Appetite is writ large on a moonscape of tar sands,
on the big gulps of mountaintop removal. Monster trucks
in the parking lot of the Mall of America. Our claw marks
on every shiny that got away. The money doesn’t spend itself.

And so these forty days after the Mardi Gras, to practice
letting go, to learn what we’ll need to know when the big fire sale
comes, when what we offer up is ability to see, or walk, or breathe.

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January Light

After the ice storm. Archive Photo of the Day: Mike Corse, Pierrepont, NY

After the ice storm. Archive Photo of the Day: Mike Corse, Pierrepont, NY

Woke to the whirr of the furnace this morning. The weather page tells me it’s in the low single digits, and looking out the kitchen window I squint into the glare of a bluebird sky blasting back from a dusting of new snow.

A beautiful day, suitable for framing–in a window that is, while I sit next to the heat vent in the kitchen and sip coffee. I love the light of January, if not the numb nose and cheeks and ears of it.

Here’s a poem for January, which is easy on the eyes, but has a heart like ice.

January Light

After the ice storm, the clock blinks 12:00 12:00 12:00,
a sign that linemen have worked through the night.
A harsh chainsaw song cuts air where town crew
clears out the river road north to the village.

For two days, the light has been ominous, pearl gray,
as drizzle and sleet accrued to every twig and needle,
a waxing crystal burden bowing birch, apple and pine
to breaking. Ice plates the car and the drive is rink.

But from the west, overcast gives way to cirrus clouds
and clear sky. Then sunshine riots through the woods,
reduplicated in a million refracted winks and sparks.
Ice light everywhere, diamond-sharp, mercilessly bright.

The front brings ten degrees of cold, gusts and a harder rain
as flexing limbs loose their carapace of ice. In an hour it’s mostly
down to ground. Trees unbent resume their dark winter’s watch.
By afternoon the snow returns to hide away the shards.

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