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.
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.
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.]]>
In the meantime I am seeking illustrators who might like to work on visual accompaniment to the series. If you feel drawn to any of this work, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It comes first from the north. After setting the Gatineau Hills aflame,
it burns south across the broad valley. It comes first at the timberline,
then pours down the mountain shoulders toward bog and pond like lava.
It blares out of the east at sunrise and smolders west at close of day.
It comes from above, painting the waterside trail like the aisle beneath
a stained glass window — lemon and crimson, an hallucinatory shade
of vermillion, each leaf charting a different path from green to brown,
single pixel in a gob-smacking tableau of river, lake and mountain.
It sifts down, collecting in drifts like golden snow, ashine above, aglow
below, aflare on scented air. Nowhere here the light doesn’t touch.
Nowhere the wind doesn’t stir paint on the marbled ground.
Nothing that doesn’t glimmer from the shadows or gleam in the sun.
It burns day after day, week after week, until all of summer’s fuel
is spent. Just here and there a thin brown banner of oak leaves
blows, a few yellow coins quiver on the birch, a few withered apples
on a limb. Then one dawn–all gone, turned to a blank white page.
Tie in My Pocket
Among things I learned from my father:
how to shave with a Gillette adjustable razor–
how to tie a necktie.
But by late in the turtleneck ’70s I had lost
the knack of it and stood like a schoolboy
while he tied one for me once again.
Care for one’s dignity also being among
my father’s lessons, I loosened the knot later
and tucked the still tied tie into my suit coat pocket.
There it stayed in years afterward, ready to deploy
on those few occasions so formal as to require
“the noose” — my father’s funeral among them.
By the ’90s the tie sported a down-at-heels
funkiness, a set of permanent wrinkles
along with a spot impervious to OxyClean.
With reluctance I consigned it to the bin
and soldiered on toward the millennium by
tie-defying recourse to round-collar shirts,
which left me ill prepared in late 2000 when
I suspected the guise of male respectability
might be to my advantage in a job interview.
Fatherless now, nearing fifty, too shamed to solicit
peer support, I went to www.dressforsuccess.com
and downloaded pictograms from tying-a-necktie.html.
Printed out and tucked into the pocket of the same
(now vintage) suit coat, they comprise a virtual
stand-in for the disheveled family relic.
I still pull this cheat sheet out on requisite occasions
to guide me at the bathroom mirror until the knot
is neat and the narrow end is tucked behind the wide.
Emerging well-kempt, my throat is constricted
in cruel conformity to masculine rites
and by the memory of lessons learned and lost.
We all have one special thing that is the real sign of spring for us. It might be the first trillium, the first lilac. For me, it’s the first heron. Here’s a new poem from a moment long ago when that bond was set.
Hunt at Spitfire
Following just behind its shadow and just as silent,
a heron ghosts into the slough from Spitfire Lake
no more than five feet off the water, close enough
to hit with a rock, my Stone Age genes advise.
The heron too is of a hunter’s mind, spilling air
to light in an open shallow amid marsh grass.
Where fingerlings flit and feed in warmer water
the heron stands still and straight to prey.
Out of line of sight I paddle closer, careful dip
and pull to make no splash, slowly, slower,
until I ship the paddle, lie forward and slip
into reeds, pulling myself along hand over hand.
I wait and watch, feet away, as the heron steps,
stops, waits and stabs downwards. One stab,
one fish. Good hunting. Nothing is in my eye
but heron, whole mind gone heron for a spell,
until the hunter squats, leaps, beats great wings–
once, twice, thrice–splashing on the downbeat,
willing its weight into the air, a little higher,
higher, away. “Oh! Me too,” I cry. “Me too!“
My friend Allen Hoey was fascinated with the esoteric multiverse philosophies of Gurdjieff and his follower, the mathmetician Ouspensky. Here’s a primer, as best I understand.
Your life as explained by Ouspensky
Every choice in life splits you in two–
the you who married the girl and you
who did not. For every bullet you dodged,
there is another you, shot to the heart.
Over the course of time, your life
resembles a worm, with a fetus
for a tail and a corpse for a snout,
writhing, derailing the lives you touch.
There are whole graveyards full of you,
full of your victims. And when the bullet
comes for this you, there will be another
luckier bastard to carry on instead.
No matter, we are all just “food for the moon,”
Gurdjieff, his esoteric mentor, said.
What he meant by that, you’ll have to ask
the you who chose to go to graduate school.
Dale Hobson 2/1/16
In her monthly astronomy chat this week, Aileen O’Donoghue put a number to how much less light we have each day as September drags us off beyond the end of summer.
That brought on another outburst in my ongoing poetry project, “Light Year,” examining the qualities of light throughout the months.
Counting down toward the equinox, a few minutes less
light each day–hardly enough to notice really, except
that last week I woke to dawn and now I wake to dark
and turn the porch light on when going out after supper.
Otherwise, it seems the same as any summer day. Cooler
perhaps, in the morning–no longer the shirtsleeves start
to an August scorcher–but still, warm as a kiss on the cheek
in the full light of noon. I should have nothing to complain of.
The leaves remain mostly green, if a slightly duller green
from the recent spell of dry weather. Only the dying maple
out front, shedding bark and limbs these recent years,
ess-oh-esses its distress in orange and lemon and red.
As sunny yellow school buses prowl the roads to carry off
poor unfortunates sentenced to compulsory education,
maybe that’s what dims my mood. Memory–the other light
by which we see the world–all other summers winding down.
Today the light is no light, just a glow that comes
from everywhere and nowhere—not quite fog,
but shadowless, diffused through the muggy air,
and this vague unease that presages thunderstorm.
But other days the hot light of midday shouts out
over the fields, strong enough to put you on you back,
one hand shading your eyes to stare up into a sky
that runs unbroken piercing blue in all directions.
Days that call for sand next to cool water, the bright
scent that sunlight draws forth from balsam and pine,
dappled light that filters down onto woodland paths,
the light that pops and scatters off a rippled lake.
And after the long late light falls to evening,
the moon’s bone-white path across the water,
bracketed by stars and fireflies, and campfire light,
and lantern light that guides you toward your bed.
There are only two seasons in the North Country
winter and not-winter. April was cruel as usual,
arbitrary, fickle, indecisive—unable to pick a side.
But May delivers what April only pretended to.
You drowse away through the dawn chorus,
but when you do rise it’s already full light,
so bright you squint out the kitchen window
waiting for the coffee to filter through.
What began as a yellow-green haze softening
the black outlines of the maple’s branches
has popped a green so lurid you would call it
“not found in nature” without the plain evidence.
And the air is a fresh rain-washed blue, so clear
the distant hills are sharp on the horizon.
A confection of cumulus dots the sky, still cool,
but on the short-sleeves side of cool, for once.
So you step out into the sweet scent of lilacs,
into the bee buzz and the hummingbird whirr
and lever your sluggish bones behind the wheel.
A little apple petal twister follows you down the road.
Two years ago I had this idea that each month of the year shone with its own unique quality of light, and that I should write a twelve-poem cycle that would capture those qualities. Until yesterday, I had managed to write one–for August. But now there are just ten left. I figure I’ll be ready for press by 2020.
November is pretty tough–dark, wet, cold, stingy. But there are a few moments that can help you last out the coming winter.
The last sweet day of November
comes after days of gloom and rain
while you are still in mourning for the fallen leaves,
resigned to coming cold and endless dark.
It comes after a frosty night has filtered the wind
and dry leaves crunch underfoot to add
their tannic tang to the odor of the air.
It comes sultry, in the 60s, and dazzlingly bright.
One last day. The sky holds blue to the horizon
except for a scribble of cumulus clouds,
some drawn long by mid-altitude winds,
some stacked serenely into stiller upper air.
Such a glory of blue and white that the eyes rise
squinting up from the dull brown and gray surround
despite themselves. How could they not?
A sane man would take the day off from work.
But these few moments will have to do.
November is a parsimonious month.
It was only luck that there was even this,
and just your usual luck to have it be a weekday.
Still, days later, you remember that brief warmth
on your face like the blush of love, and you taste
again that last sip of brightness, precious now
as the flash of a cardinal’s wing amid twilight cedars.
Two years ago I had this idea that each month of the year shone with its own unique quality of light, and that I should write a twelve-poem cycle that would capture those qualities. As it is with many summer projects, I made a start but couldn’t follow through because–well–because hammock, because barbecue. You know how it goes.
I ran across the abortive effort last night, one poem imaginatively titled “August Light,” and realized that in this chilly August, this particular light has been completely passed over. As long as you’re all showing off your North Country stoicism by resisting the impulse to fire up the furnace “just to take the chill off,” maybe this will provide you with a little warmth.
In the cool morning of a hot day
the road is lined with chicory,
purple loosestrife, buttercups
and Queen Anne’s lace.
The corn is green, grass is brown,
the sky blue, except at the horizon
where haze tints the raking light
the same shade as lemonade.
When I was five I would walk
in lemon light all by my lonesome
(without crossing the street)
to the store for a five-cent treat.
And at ten, identical light shone
down through filtering oaks
where I crossed the rusted tracks
to mess about beside the river.
It was light the shade of lemonade
I was trying to evoke at twenty,
sweating out the writing workshop,
beating at the page like a moth.
At forty, this light lit up my dad–
elbow out the window, pipe in teeth,
ball-capped, driving a ’67 Safari,
trailing his motorboat toward heaven.
Memory, sweet and sour, mixed
like lemonade in August light.
Everything everywhere always shining–
that is how the light looks now.