After years of benign neglect, I’ve been spending time and money in the nurseries and garden tool departments of the hardware store. And I find that working in the garden feels satisfying solid in comparison to the airier pursuits of art.
Sun on the Garden
The part that makes poetry has lain sleeping, and now (after COVID again) tumbleweeds blow through my brain. So instead, I dig and plant and water and mulch and weed, thinking of nothing much under the late spring sun, except how the names of flora make their own kind of poetry: lobelia and marigold, shrub rose and geranium, salvia.
That would make Adam the first poet, I suppose, sitting in the Garden of Eden naming all the animals: “Platypus, I shall call you platypus.” — and all the others, an arkful of the newly named for Noah to salvage from the flood. I name them to myself as they come to check my work: robin, rabbit, chipmunk, butterfly, black fly and whitetail.
This is the power of word. To name it is to see it, to bring its smell to the nose, just as the mind mimes each story even as it’s told, or as we twitch and mutter in dreams. So small the difference between word and world, a thing thin as the skin that separates me from thee, a mere tissue. Yet call it what you will, flesh in fact is fact, and word is air.
I wave the hose head back and forth like a magic wand or a maestro’s baton, calling up water from below the bedrock. But one only tends a garden, encouraging life. The maestro creates no symphony, no matter how dramatically he waves. The flowers know what powers the upthrust of their lives. They turn its way each day as it tracks across the skies.
While helping a friend clean out her house in preparation for a cross-country relocation, another helper asked me if I had ever published a particular poem in one of my books. I had read it live on-air for the January 2008 edition of NCPR’s then-monthly arts program, Open Studio, and it had stuck in her mind for 15 years.
As it turns out it has never been published and it has particular resonance for me at this moment when I am finishing up a new volume of poetry, “The Other Village,” and am in search of a publisher. Having finished the draft and ordered the book’s contents, I find I now have nothing but tumbleweeds blowing through my cerebral cortex.
A New Year Poem
Having put paid to another Christmas (save for the bill-paying), I look down my list for the next bulleted item and find nothing–blank paper– a snowfield of pending ambition.
But, to my credit, I have done nothing this year so egregious as to cause my wife to deposit me at the roadside with a duffel bag of dirty laundry and four thousand used books. Nor has my daughter felt the need to change her name or block my number. The long strands of life remain tied.
And I have worked through another whole year without my boss having to close her office door upon a final quiet conversation before my laptop and I are cast out to wander the virtual streets of Second Life, at loose ends.
The kitchen renovation did, at ruinous expense, come through this year to resolution, but, by the time the rest of the house is made as fit, it will all need to be done again, world without end.
And if my book-in-progress remains unprinted, still, it grinds on toward publication at a steady glacial pace. One can see how, given inexorable pressure from new work behind, it must calve off eventually from the vast shelf of unsolicited manuscripts to join the other bergs of words that obstruct the sea lanes of contemporary literature.
Therefore, in the new year, I will not learn Chinese. No villanelle will appear below my name in The New Yorker. I will manage to soldier on without a BowFlex body, and ballroom dancing will remain, for now, beyond my ken.
In lieu of a bill of particulars, I propose this series of continuing resolutions: to keep my family close, to do my job, to keep the roof above the cellar, and to always enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
I started this poem Sunday, before snow fell upon the daffodils of today’s haiku. But even a foolish hope is better than none. I have this notion that wisdom is more for the brain, whereas the heart is given to folly. And that’s a good thing.
Young and Old
My father, when he was dying of cancer at 67, (younger than I am now), confided this to me: “I’ve never felt older than nineteen in my heart.”
It explains a lot, like how I too never feel quite grown up. And my uncles were just the same: men in body and chassis, boyish beneath the hood.
My heart was older when I was younger though, laden with worry and drink. Each sober year since has lightened it up, grown it a little younger.
It’s good, I think now, for the heart to be a little stupid. A soft breeze blows; daffodils bloom this Sunday, and I cherish a foolish hope that winter is done at last.
I may never make it back around to nineteen, but that’s okay; my teen years were not my best — except, of course, for taking up this life with you.
Were hearts not a little stupid, how could we have lasted?
I’m often awake deep in the night. Not that I’m troubled; it’s just a feature of long life. While I might struggle to meditate during a busy day, I can easily stand by a moonlit window and just be an eye without a thought in my head.
Waking to waxing moonshine, the yard deep blue in its light, I hear the furnace cycle off and nothing else makes a sound. A lone doe noses the snow below the crab apple tree. My breath fogs the window.
Nobody starts college without going through freshman orientation and getting a student handbook. But anyone can move up north from Florida and dive straight into a North Country winter with no preparation whatsoever. What could possibly go wrong?
A Newcomer’s Guide to North Country Winter
It’s Darwin pure and simple: walking across thin ice, driving on bald tires, making snow angels after drinking tequila—It’ll get you tossed right out of the gene pool.
You have to do math in winter. There’s an optimum speed for any road conditions that will keep your car between the ditches. Any faster keeps the wrecker’s kids in college funds.
If you don’t watch where you put your feet while also watching what’s coming down the road, you’ll either break a hip or be lost beneath a beer truck. It’s called situational awareness.
The right amount of snow shoveling allows your car to blast out the drive onto the road. Miscalculate by 10% and you’re a foot short of the pavement with all four tires off the ground.
And if you shovel too much too fast, there’s the cardiac arrest. So, take your time and cultivate good relations with your neighbors. If you do something stupid, they’ll help you out–laugh, but help.
When you’ve lived in one place a long time, the touchstones of memory can be found anywhere, taking you by surprise, taking you back into the past between one bite and the next.
When We Were Flyers
While eating my burger, I notice a Flexible Flyer sled hanging on the diner wall like a trophy head. A collection of novelty teapots, a baby blue ceramic cross and a copy of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” flesh out the décor.
Winter is hanging on, if barely; the snow’s a little wet for sledding, at least until it freezes back up after dark. But the Flyer, identical to one I purchased in the 1960s with spoils from my paper route, brings it all back .
Your sister might sit upright on it, steering with feet but well, she’s a girl. The proper method is to run as fast as you can, throwing down the sled and yourself headfirst upon the sled in one smooth motion.
With your face just inches off the snow, you could almost bust through the sound barrier. When icy you could fly all the way from Holcroft House on down to the corner of Clarkson Ave. and Maple St.
The doorway of a dormitory made a warming hut and the Dilly Wagon across Route 11 served cocoa. I have no memory of trudging uphill over and over, only the long flights down through face-biting cold
and walking home long after dark, the mercury down below zero, across the bridges where icy river fog rimed the elms, maples and willows, and bright stars hung like chips of ice around a high-flown moon.
It was too good to last. Clarkson put up snow fence to cordon off the hill. Either the lawyers got to them or the dining hall made a fusss about all the lunch trays destroyed by improvising student toboggganers.
Or it could be because every time they spread fresh sand on the sidewalk, we shoveled fresh snow on top of it, restoring it to its rightful purpose as a sleighway. How I long to take that Flyer down and give it one more go.