Elders on Sunday

“Each year the students come and go like geese, pilgrims passing…” Photo: Bill Gracey, Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Somehow I never managed to share this poem from “Light Year” on Facebook or in this blog. I come back to it now because it is central to the themes of my work-in-progress, “The Other Village,” a volume of poetry focused on the village and town where I have lived since 1957. It is more personal than my more descriptive pictures of life in the village over the decades, taking a look inside my family life. There are a few other previously published poems that fit into “The Other Village” as well. I guess it will need to be titled “The Other Village: New and Selected Poems.”

Elders on Sunday

When the elders come forward to lay hands upon
their newest sister, the pews are left near empty.
The congregants, grey and white as seagulls, lean in 
to hear the vows spoken, just as they have been
spoken these past two hundred and some years.

After service, coffee hour and cleaning up, we come
home to our empty nest in four acres of second-growth.
The archaeology of a working farm is broken up 
by beech and pine, buried under sumac and vine, 
the dug well plugged with stone and rusted roof tin.

We settle on couch and chair with silver laptops open,
me to edit an article, and you to post our little news
to the feeds of friends. “Coffee?” I take your nod
to the kitchen, fill the filter with local roast and lean
against the sink to wait for water to whistle.

Watching our neighbor wrestle his pick-up, upsized
for the life he used to lead, onto the road to town,
I re-litigate this choice to stay put, rooted at the edge
of rootless America. Here in this house a little too big
for us, outside this village a little too small for us.

In the ’70s, we were ready to go. You proposed,
“Cid and I could go Army on the buddy plan; you
and Allen could live on base,” or, I countered, 
“We could move the whole shebang to Montana 
while Allen does his MFA and I set up a little press.”

We once thought a commune might raise a batch
of kids all together, but then we bought this place
instead — and baby made three. The collective
scattered, the whole world moving off it seemed,
while we stayed put to settle this nest.

You worked OB-GYN and I ran press on campus;
you nursed on campus and I worked freelance,
changing jobs instead of place until the girl grew, 
went off to sink her own roots into city streets.
Natural for her to go; just as natural for us to stay.

Each year the students come and go like geese,
pilgrims passing while we keep faith, keep house
from falling into the cellar hole, keep going to 
high school musicals, gallery shows, meetings,
church suppers, the movie house, the co-op.

“I have no thought of leaving. I do not count
the time,” as Sandy Denny sang, except now
and then, while waiting for the whistle, waiting
for the brew to trickle through, before returning
to place this mug of coffee by your side.

Bonus track: Sandy Denny singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”

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A Brief History of Hair

Photo: Kipp Teague, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I went to get my hair cut the other day, something I do a few times a year whether I need it or not. The now-unisex business dated back to 1958, so while waiting my turn I fell into a reverie about my earliest memories of getting my hair cut in a “no-girls allowed” kind of traditional barber shop.

A Brief History of Hair

Men went to barbers and women went to hair salons.
Dad, Gerry and I went to Vince’s. Who knows where
Mom took Linda? Foil and curlers and dryers, fruity
stinks mixed with harsh chemicals — no place for boys.

At Vince’s it was bay rum and Vitalis, buzz cut or flat top.
The men waiting for the chair talked business and sports
and sometimes politics (if it was fall.) Boys swung legs
back and forth, a couple inches shy of the hair-dusted tile.

Old men from the Albion Hotel across the street still
came by twice a week for a straight razor shave. You
never saw them without suit and tie, hat, shined shoes.
Men, regardless of circumstance, had certain standards.

Vince’s hair was black as night and would stay that way
until they put him in the ground. Grecian Formula 16
was sold from under the counter in discrete paper bags.
But then the ‘60s came, spoiling pretty much everything.

Men wanted hair like JFK, women wanted to be Jackie.
And then, dear God, the four mop tops. Boys wanted to be
Prince Valiant; girls ironed waist-length hair flat as Kansas.
Everything went all unisex once Vince closed his doors.

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Into High Country

Detail: Cumulus clouds. Photo: Huha, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

During this time of seemingly non-stop bummers, of disease and unease, dreary with fear, a little drop of joy can feel like a revolutionary act.

Into High Country

Whenever I head up into high country my doubts
stay in the valley behind me. For miles around me
a greening kingdom of corn and clover extends,
bounded by barns and sugarbush. And up above
a whole other world hangs, continents of cumulus
broken by bright blue seas of sky. Who made this?

Who can say? The next turn runs up the High Peaks,
up into the world of wind where cloud shadows
dapple the shoulders of the mountains, where bald
summits of granite shine. If God so loved this world,
why should I not also love? Having never seen God, 
only creation, all I know of sweet shalom lies here.

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A Summer Holiday

Photo; Dale Hobson

This is another poem extracted from a prose piece written for NCPR’s newsletter, The Listening Post. I spent a July day in 2015 in Ogdensburg where I had a ringside seat for the Seaway Festival Parade. I was staffing an information table for Reachout of St. Lawrence County. I confess that the parade and the yummy street food cooking behind me occupied more of my attention than passing out Reachout brochures and answering questions.

A Summer Holiday

The parade amalgamates all the hootiness of which
the small town is capable — puts it all out there at once,
loud and proud. Fire engines blink, woo-woo and blat.
Marching bands don sequins, plumes and go-go boots,
a-strut with horns, drums, banners and batons.

Shriners evacuate their day jobs to don fezzes,
ride tall bicycles and zoom in tiny cars. Troopers,
seven feet tall in Stetson hats, march in formation
convoyed by motorcycles. Bagpipers are in full kit;
clowns stride on stilts. Festival royals wave royally
from the back seat of a convertible. There’s a bevy 
of dairy princesses mounted on a hay wagon, even
a steel drum band playing “God Bless America.”

Well, amen.

Every kid in town and from every town around
rummages for tossed candy, stuffs fire-engine red
hot dogs and drinks of colors not found in nature
into their mouths, showing off t-shirts expressing
attitude and novelty hats expressing lunacy. 

All your friends, all your relations, all your neighbors
and all their relations are somewhere along the route,
standing in shades and sunhats, plunked down on
folding chairs or picnic blankets. After dark, fireworks
will blare out and boom above the mirror of the river.

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Country Sounds

Mourning dove. Photo: Dagny Gromer, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

If people were dogs, most would be gaze hounds, like the Irish wolfhound that hunts by sight. We rely overwhelming on our sense of sight. Do you see? But as my own vision begins to dim, I find myself using the full suite of my senses more, paying attention to texture and odor, or in the case of this poem, the sounds around me.

Country Sounds

A mourning dove mourns all morning in the pine
outside my window, pining for who can say what.
It sounds like a bored boy on a hot day blowing
across his empty Pepsi bottle. Who, who, who.

A little breeze stirs the chimes we hung to give
to air its voice, repeating seven notes at random.
Not much to say, it just rings out faster or slower,
louder or softer, depending on the wind’s whim.

Otherwise, it’s intermittent traffic noise, rising
from the north, falling away south, then vice versa,
punctuated by rifle fire from my nimrod neighbor
who slaughters a paper target tacked to a hay bale.

Were we not between rain showers, there’d be
the usual lawnmowers grumbling and chain saws
ripping through the air along with the blowdown.
Instead, traffic tapers off and ammo is spent.

For a little bit, the country air goes silent, still
as 3 am, until the chimes begin to bell again
as the wind rises from a different direction
and slanting rain returns, hissing on the tin.

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One Friday on Lawrence Avenue

I grew up in a different world known as the ’50s and ’60s. Men still wore fedoras and women still wore white gloves to church. There was a Green Stamps redemption center downtown, the original cash-back credit scheme. I attended the centralized elementary school from the first year it opened.

One Friday on Lawrence Avenue

The day begins with WPDM’s daily sign-on song:
“I once had a girlfriend, but each time I kissed her
the St. Lawrence River said, ‘keep movin’, mister.’”

My father shaves with an electric razor, his narrow tie
looped loose around his neck. After the farm report,
news of the region and the world, comes Swap Shop.

Mom lays out bowls, cereal, and milk in the kitchen,
brown-bags sandwiches, carrot sticks in waxed paper,
and two-ounce boxes of sweetened California raisins.

My brother and sister sit at the kitchen table already
but the elementary school day starts an hour later,
so I stay in bed, awaiting my turn in the bathroom.

School lies just down the street, but this year, aside
from class books I lug a ‘cello case, although a winter
dodging snowballs will soon cure me of orchestra.

Strangely, my memory of those weekdays excludes
all formal instruction. I only remember recess,
the lunch room, hanging out before and after school.

Outside by the monkey bars Larry and I fold up
paper army hats. I put five stars on mine, knowing
how a five-star general, like Ike, outranks everybody.

That doesn’t stop Larry from putting stars on every
square inch of his hat, proclaiming himself to be
a 99-star general. I suspect that Larry is an idiot.

I tell him my vote is for Kennedy, because PT-109.
He says his dad said Kennedy’s a Catholic. The Pope,
who wears a dress and a funny hat, would run things.

The lunch room is a weird ‘50s hybrid, an “auditeria,”
with risers, a stage, and theater curtain at one end
and doors into the kitchen and dish room opposite.

Lunch for brown baggers costs two cents, paying for
a thick glass half pint of milk with a cardboard stopper.
The rest pay a quarter for Salisbury steak with fixings.

Larry chews his sandwich into a flipped bird shape and
waves it at the teachers’ table. Wally wads a whole
PB&J on white in his mouth, then pops it out on tongue.

Gary Calhoun laughs so hard a chicken noodle soup 
noodle comes out his nose. I gather milk straws and
feathered toothpicks to blowgun into the ceiling tiles.

After lunch I watch out the window as cows from 
the farm next door turn grass into tomorrow’s milk.
Eventually school buses queue up along the circle.

I walk home to an empty house: my brother’s off
to JV track practice and my sister is twirling baton.
Mom works late on Friday at Montgomery Ward.

Mrs. Stevens from upstairs keeps one eye out
until someone else gets home, my father, often,
back from his sales territory for Remington Rand.

He makes instant coffee, lights a pipe of Cherry Blend,
and pushes back in the recliner with the daily paper.
I preheat the oven and pop in a casserole of leftovers.

After dinner, it’s still light enough to play guns, or
Kick the Can, but today it’s going to be the TV.
Route 66 follows Rawhide, then Jackie Gleason.

And since Mom is just getting home, a special treat,
Twilight Zone, which runs past my usual bedtime.
Once in bed, my brother uses all the plots to scare me.

I lie awake under moonshine through Venetian blinds
as dogs bark at mysterious intruders passing by and
night trains roll through, heading into the future.

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Universum

Flammarion engraving, artist unknown. Colorized version by .Raven, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I have long used a hand-colored detail of the so-called Flammarion engraving as a visual identifier for my website and for my nascent publishing company, Liberty Street Books. But I have never before written an ekphrastic poem using the piece. Mischief managed.

Universum

The face of the sun and the face of the moon, stars hung
like lanterns from the rafters of the night, these we know.
The homely village beside still water, the fields and hills,
everyday furnishings of everyday life, these we know.

But then, perchance in dreams, or on our knees at the edge
of who we are, the world lets slip her veil and we are shown
wheels within wheels, the many-layered onion of chaos,
transfixed by flames and clouds and rainbows of eternity.

Who would believe it? What words contain such vastness?
Only stare agape while the vision runs until the vision fades
back into an ordinary eye, a quotidian journey, and silence.

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Praising Trillium

Photo: James St. Johns, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I’ve been reviewing nearly 20 years of Listening Post newsletters I wrote for North Country Public Radio and keep coming across excerpts of prose that easily convert to poetry. Here’s a poem extracted from a post about one of my naturalist obsessions, our native wild lily, the trillium.

Trillium

Not gaudy and sociable like the daffodil,
which permits itself to be herded chock-a-block
into beds, trillium are modest and retiring.

Thriving in the most anemic of soil,
they hide their beauty under partial shade.
They keep a discreet distance from one another,
lightly salted along the woodland trails.

Far from the profligate perfume of lilac,
trillium cast no more aroma than cold spring water.

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Living in the Immaterial World

This falls into the category of things I had forgotten that I had written. The genre might be called pre-postmodern Luddite rant.

Down the iHole

First it ate the wall phone and the wires
then all the clocks and all their ticking.
It sucked in the printing presses and
the logging trucks that kept them fed.
The tape recorder and the answering machine,
the typewriters which are no more. The radio,
movie theaters and TVs, even the remote–
the telegraph and post office have 
both fallen in.

It ate the library and the bookstore,
the living room bookcases, the stereo
and the record store, all nine feet of my vinyl.
The cartographer, the atlas, and the gazette–
all tamped down in. The social clubs, the stadium,
the notebook and the pen, large stuff and small stuff,
all stuffed in.

The camera, the photo album, the wallet and
the little black book. All the computers and monitors,
keyboards, cables and mice. The calculator and
the shopping cart. The weatherman is inside it,
and the anchorman. All the board games, casinos,
puzzles, toys. The fitness center, the coach, the tutor,
the translator. All the stuffing has been removed
from all my stuff, leaving just this hard handful
buzzing in my pocket.

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Easter Rising

Coltsfoot. Photo: The Cosmonaut, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I’m a little behind the season with this. I kept going back to it, revising, revising revisions, dropping stanzas, rewriting the closing more than once. Now bluets, daffodils, and hyacinths are blooming too, in the churchyard and around the village. But this is about the very first of the little resurrections.

Easter Rising

Nothing in bloom but a few snowdrops and coltsfoot:
the first along a sunny wall in the yard and the latter
on the river trail that runs from the graveyard into town.
Though neither is native to this sparse North Country
upland, it’s easy to see why settlers planted them here.

When winter drags on then slumps into mud season,
itself a pallid purgatory, who can wait for trillium,
for apple blossoms, for lilacs that still are weeks away?
In the language of flowers, the snowdrop spells hope. 
And they are said to counteract poison. Can you feel it?

Bluet, daffodil, hyacinth, iris, tulip, day lily, tiger lily.
It’s not so much their blooming as knowing that they
will bloom, each in turn — an Easter faith each spring 
renews, thawing out the stony heart of winter — saved, 
as Mary Oliver once said, “by the beauty of the world.”

Roots stir the dirt, groping down toward water, stems
break duff, groping up toward light. After the leaves, buds
that bloom, blow, and seed. What is this if not salvation?
Whether it be angel or heron so high above the foothills,
the sun, buttery as coltsfoot, has created a new morning.

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