I first started reading Chinese poetry in high school. transporting myself from small-town ’60s America into mountains and rivers without end.
Now I find myself going back to the first books I bought for myself back then and re-reading them (and me) through 60-something eyes.
Reading Chinese poets
When I was young, I imagined
how fine it would be to get drunk
in the moonlight by the river
in the company of Li Po.
But now, growing long in the tooth,
I’d prefer a mountain hut like Hanshan’s,
but with my host gone off on a long ramble.
Who can think with all his chatter?
When I wrote “In the Spring of Fever,” I hoped that one season would do it. Alas. This poem came to me out of the weird congruence between such a beautiful summer and the grinding fear and anxiety of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating.
In the Summer of Fever
Day after day flotillas of cumulus fly
through bright skies. Rain falls scant
and brief, barely wetting the ground
before the sun breaks through again.
How to reconcile such splendor, all
this shining, with the weight of worry
like the smoke of distant forest fire
hanging day and night upon the air.
Masked children huddle close to moms
and dads in the store. Silent people wait
for takeout the regulation six feet apart
rocking on their heels with arms crossed.
How can the sky be all a-riot with sunset
while my heart fills with lights and sirens?
It twists up the brain like fever dreams.
How can the dying be only just begun?
No one will speak of it. Will it be me?
Will it be worse than me? Don’t ask.
Unload the groceries and cook the dinner.
Do the next thing, then try to go to sleep.
Here is an occasional poem I wrote back in 2011 as a table grace for a GardenShare event in Canton, NY. GardenShare is a locavore organization that shares the bounty with schools and food pantries, etc., and promotes sustainable agriculture and good food policy. I rediscovered it in going through old email correspondence with the late, great Vermont poet David Budbill. Until I ran across it again I had no memory of ever having written such a thing.
Back to the Table
Lord, Lord. Here we all are again, gathered round the table.
Something smells good—and I’m not talking about
your cheap aftershave, Uncle Jim—I mean kitchen good.
Makes me grateful to have a nose—such as it is.
Grateful too for this company. These friends–both convivial
and annoying, my relations—the dear and the dreadful.
Strangers—who are family as long as the food holds out.
And for all enthusiastic eaters of every time and place
who so love the world they want to wrap it with their bodies,
who labor like mad scientists at evening kitchen counters
brewing endless arcane and sometimes unpleasant compotes
in the hope of one astonishing gastronomic feat. Bless them.
And bless these Pac-Man children of ours, chomping their way
through the maze of shelves in the fridge–ng-ng-ng-ng-ng ng ng ng.
Bless these dyspeptic old farts, well a-nod before dessert and coffee.
And bless me too, Lord; for I fear I may do myself a little damage.
Bless the farmer, by whose magical sweat dirt and rain and seed
transform to corn, mutate to potato, come into bean, bulge into bulb.
Bless the turned earth, stinking with spring, and all that springs from it:
tuber and pod, root and grain, fruit and leaf, stalk and flower.
It’s all good. And good too, are our munificent brother beings:
thanks for the bees and the cheese, for ghee and goat,
for the egg and the chicken it rode in on. And for all our brothers
upon whom we dine, until it’s their time to dine upon us.
Thanks for cultured bacteria, who, like You, toil invisibly on our behalf,
for yeast, laboring a thousand generations to make this croissant flaky,
who transform water into wine, and multiply the loaves of our daily bread.
May their reward be as generous as this pastry I weep to contemplate.
Bless my pie hole, as ready to receive as any baby bird, that chews its way
through space and time, from birth to death. This constant companion,
my ever-emptying belly, that delights in soup and subs, salad and salsa,
sesame and saltimbocca, sassafras and stew—that stands ready,
and yea—more than ready, for whatever may emerge from the kitchen.
Holy is the hand that stirs the pot, holy the hand that serves, holy
this table of our communion. My tongue and teeth consider all this
and declare it to be beautiful. I open wide with words of praise.
Life is full of complicated questions, seemingly impervious to solution, no matter how you clench the jaw or chew the pillow. The mind backs up like bad plumbing. Everything starts to smell a little funky. Luckily for us, every now and then all those complicated questions will find a simple answer.
The answer to everything
Needing once again to be out of the house,
I invent a few errands in town and ride out
into the full fresh green of June. A perfect day,
when all the tired old earth’s hurts are hid.
These cool mid-June days – just enough breeze
to keep the bugs at bay, but buttery with sun,
and such a hullabaloo of puffy clouds carpets
a sky that couldn’t be any bluer if it played the sax.
This is a day that has the answer to everything.
Pandemic? Green leaves, blue sky, white clouds.
Anxiety? Green leaves, blue sky, white clouds.
Anger? Green leaves, blue sky, white clouds.
Tires singing on the road, scent of pine and water
rushing in through the rolled-down windows.
For now, I’m happy as a house-bound workaholic
can be. Out of the house, out of my worried mind.
But even light duty gets old after long enough. As my friend Bob told me long ago, “It’s not the length of time that bothers me; it’s the intensity.” Boredom and uncertainty, with just a touch of panic, makes for an intense mix.
In the meantime, as Michael Valentine Smith remarked succinctly, but cryptically – in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – “Waiting is.”
In the spring of fever
Facebook tells me the trillium are blooming downstate
but I have not seen one, and that the heron have returned,
though I have not seen one fly. Somewhere fruit trees bloom,
but not the old apple beside my drive. Not yet. Not yet.
Each day it’s easier to keep indoors, working, watching
the news, working some more. Making another meal
and washing up. Keeping to a sensible bedtime. Waiting,
hiding out, the way a hare waits out the prowling owl.
Each day is much like the next – four weeks, five weeks?
What is time? The hair has grown down over my ears.
The days blow by like leaves. This is how, in fairy tales,
the wizard, lost in thought, turns into a tree on the hill.
I remember how eagerly I used to listen for the school closings on WPDM when I was a kid. Will it be a snow day? I think my father, being a teacher, listened with similar anticipation. A snow day was the touch of grace, an unanticipated diversion from business as usual.
Thanks to the power of the cursed internet, my snow day yesterday meant a work day at home, doing all my usual duties on a much smaller screen. But who’s bitter? Saturday will do just as well, sending out this poem composed in my pajamas.
All night while I was sleeping snow came down,
the way time invisibly accumulates until one
morning this is this face I see in my mirror.
What plans I might have had for the day – poof.
Nothing is moving from here to town, nothing
moving among the white-freighted trees.
Only the snow is moving, steadily downward
as I peer out through the north-side windows
and school closings crowd out the radio news.
But the reassuring rumble of the furnace is steady;
the pantry and the fridge are good for days yet.
Why get dressed? Why not cook some comfort food?
There is another village on the outskirts of town where we keep our memories. A place where it’s easy to travel though time and space.
The other village
The village I grew up in has mostly moved to Bayside now,
settling along the winding lanes under the big maple trees
beside the Raquette. The old WWI vets from across the street
were lately joined by the WWII vets around the corner.
The shopkeepers from Main Street, the barbers and cops,
teachers and coaches, librarians and Rotarians, all here now.
I recognize names of paper route customers, old neighbors,
scribed into the leaf-blown stones above their life dates.
It is quiet here, far from the road noise, and is lovely, really,
in better weather than November. My own dead lie south
in a tree-covered park up a long hill from the Susquehanna:
parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, half a family tree.
They visit me in dreams sometimes, though I rarely visit them.
I wouldn’t have come to Bayside at all, but someone needed
to be with their father and lacked the ride. We park a while
out of the wind, each lost in memory, watching flat gray water.
I’ve always been grateful to the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club for cutting and maintaining the Red Sandstone Trail behind my house along the Raquette River from Hannawa Falls down Sugar Island almost to the village. Before then, it was all bushwhack. I took a friend visiting from Florida down part of the trail the other day. There was one spot I just had to share.
Beside the waters
It’s only a little waterfall, only a little way from home.
Most of the long rapids that gave the spot its native name,
“laughing waters,” is sunk beneath Hannawa Flow.
But even a small fall of water over red sandstone
is worth the walk, the scramble down the bluff
of leaf duff, needles and scree to the jumbled riverbed.
You can hear the water all the way from the road,
white noise, but with a pulse that ebbs and rises.
You can smell the water, fresh as the world’s dawning.
I’ve come a hundred times to this overhang, undercut
a little further each spring by Adirondack snowmelt,
to this same flat rock in the shadow of the pines.
There’s a message within the falling water, some signal
to decode, had one the ears for it and the stillness.
Listen. No, really listen. Wait. You will hear it, too.
poems by Dale Hobson, illustrations by Suzanne Langelier-Lebeda
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Everyone old enough to remember where they were when the first humans landed on the moon does remember. I was 15 that summer and on a grand tour of the national parks out West with my family.
Our campsite was in walking distance of the Custer Park State Game Lodge and I suspected they would have a TV. They graciously let me in, even though I was the only person present not in formal evening attire for the big occasion, not even close.
Somehow, this recollection led me this morning off into an autobiography of my feet – or my footwear, anyway.
50 years ago, I wore water buffalo sandals, cut-off jeans,
a short-sleeved denim shirt, and a string of seed-pod
love beads as I walked down the road to Calvin Coolidge’s
summer White House to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon.
We were camping in a tent trailer hauled behind my uncle’s
’67 GTO in the badlands of South Dakota where Custer
met his fate, not far from Mount Rushmore: me, grandma,
my sister and mom and Dad. Brother Gerry was in OCS.
The next footwear fad to tickle my fashion fancy was
Dingo boots: square toed, with ankle straps, brass rings.
My denim shirt was graced at the collar with a red bandana.
Western was cool, at least according to the Grateful Dead.
But then, after Kent State, I went working class hero:
denim still – jacket, jeans and work shirt – but footed out
in steel-toed work boots. There were presses to run,
and a revolution in need of a minister of propaganda.
Sadly, the press burned down in 1980, so I went back
to running shoes, seeking escape from the Moral Majority.
There was no escape, apparently, but I ran on anyway,
through the millennium, on into the Age of Aquarius.
But then running shoes went bad, starting with Air Jordans.
Sneaks became pricey, Halloween-hued, with blinking lights.
I persisted anyway, finding brown with inoffensive stripes,
holding on until the last acquisition was rotting off my feet.
We were in Boston, visiting our daughter, when I saw
the multi-story shoe warehouse near Downtown Crossing.
Surely somewhere within I could find respectable kicks.
But no. Every pair looked left behind by alien visitation.
I was ready to write the raid off until my daughter looked
me in the eye and said “Dad – you’re in your fifties now.
Why don’t you get yourself some man shoes?” – ouch! -
and took me down the aisles that smelled of leather.
Just past the checkout, I binned my decrepit runners
and slipped into the bliss of buttery-soft Venetian loafers.
Taking my now happy feet out onto the streets of the city,
I thought to myself, “I could do the moon walk in these.”