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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December Light

Archive Photo of the Day: John Tenbusch, Waddington NY.

Archive Photo of the Day: John Tenbusch, Waddington NY.

The winter solstice is soon upon us — the dark of the year — and for many, the dark of a difficult year. And yet, the biggest celebrations come with the end of the year, too. It makes a useful paradox on which to hang the last installment of “Light Year,” my series looking at the unique qualities of light in each month of year.

Safe holiday travels to all, if you are heading out on the road. And enjoy the light of family and friends, if the sun provides you a little too little.

December Light

What little light December spares is dimmed by frosted windows.
Both ends of night overlap the edges of the workday. At home
the windows are blackened morning and evening all week,
and all that daybreak has to show is snow blown sideways.

Where autumn burned the leaves, now we burn the trees.
Anything for a little more light. Under a paltry imitation of sun
I rig for silent running aboard the submarine of winter. Until
weather breaks, until the wind dies, it won’t be safe to surface.

I’d pay twenty more degrees of cold for a fair sky — a full moon
convoyed west by wisps of cloud, bold Orion riding above cedars,
moonshadows cast across the snow. But no. So little light;
so much night. Fat flakes thickly fall far as feeble porch light shows.

And so we conjure what we can — candlelight, Christmas lights,
angels glowing in the yard. We build up the fire and sing aloud,
throw feasts, give gifts, raise a clamor of bells. We huddle
with family, friends, to squeeze the very last light from the year.

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Happy to Be Here Now

Summit of Cascade. Archive Photo of the Day: Stuart Delman, Chestertown NY.

Summit of Cascade. Archive Photo of the Day: Stuart Delman, Chestertown NY.

It’s been a tough year to follow the obits, a tough year period. No sooner do I get my head around one human-shaped hole in the universe, than “another man done gone”—or woman.

Too much loss, too much worry, too much anger and fear: blessings hard to give thanks for. These things were on my mind last month as I was sitting in the library at Twitchell Lake Inn, reading the work of some older men who were also contemplating mortality and gratitude.

Looking ahead to Thanksgiving this week, I give thanks for that most basic of all blessings—for life.

Happy to Be Here Now

Beside this rustic lodge a glacial erratic rests, just short
of sliding down to the lake. On it, a plaque–
Earl Covey built this place. Lodge and boulder remain,
but Earl Covey? Gone since nineteen fifty-three.

“There’s only one dualism that counts: Being and Non-Being,”
Gary Snyder said, “It’s all ecology otherwise; it’s all
interactions.” Being on the being end of the continuum
at this moment, dry and warm, I say, “Thanks, Earl. Nice work.”

But not to keep. Gravity takes the long view – logs will lean,
the rooftree fall. The boulder will roll to the lake bottom,
which will in time silt in, sprout up into white birch. Meanwhile,
“Let’s go dancing while we’ve still got feet,” David Budbill said.

He said of dead, “It’s back to the undifferentiated Tao with you.”
Now he can speak with authority. I say, “Thanks, David. Nice work.”
North of sixty is a surplus of memento mori. Asked “What about
age, sickness and death?” Snyder said, “Enjoy them while you can.”

I climb up, beyond bonsai mountain ash at the timberline,
beyond fear, sentiment, to the mute anorthosite bulge of summit,
to one solid illusion of eternity in a kingdom of wind. There
I take off my hat to scratch at the scar where cancer once grew.

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October Light

My recent Adirondack Center for Writing residency allowed me to complete drafts of the five remaining poems in my “Light Year” series, exploring the qualities of light in each month of the year, and to do some revision work on the seven I had already completed. I’m happiest with the following draft for October. The remainder still need some more time to stew before revision.

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 dale@ncpr.org.

October Light

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.

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Tie in My Pocket

I’ve been a fellow at the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Anne LaBastille Writing Residency down in the mountains for the last two weeks. Here is one poem to come out of that excellent and intensive program.

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.

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“Whole mind gone heron”

Archive Photo of the Day: Sr. Mary F. Barnes, Ogdensburg, NY

Archive Photo of the Day: Sr. Mary F. Barnes, Ogdensburg, NY

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!

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Your life as explained by Ouspensky

"Even the problem of Time is simple in comparison with the problem of Eternity." --P.D. Ouspensky

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

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September Light

Archive Photo of the Day: Kristin V. Rehder, Wanakena, NY

Archive Photo of the Day: Kristin V. Rehder, Wanakena, NY

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.

September Light

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.

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