Poem for Autumn

October's blaze adorns the lawn

Autumn Lament

September’s sun has come and gone
++++And now the fall is here.
October’s blaze adorns the lawn,
++++The swan song of the year.

The bonfires of my autumns past
++++Burn cool as I recall
The hayride loves that failed to last
++++Beyond the end of fall.

Out on the gridiron battlefield,
++++Where so much toil was paid,
Where cheers and chants once loudly pealed,
++++Now flags and glory fade.

Our friends and kinsmen now are few.
++++Our lovers are all gone.
All those we thought would see us through
++++Cannot be counted on.

When we were young we loved the fall.
++++We loved the leaves aglow.
Knew always we’d have one more fall.
++++Those days, what did we know?


(2018)

NOTES: Something about autumn makes me want to return to the poems of British poet A.E. Housman.

Housman once said in a lecture that the special function of poetry was “to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.”

There is something in so many of his poems that vibrates on the same wavelength with the sense of loss I feel when fall arrives. So when the nights began to cool and the leaves began to turn, I picked up my old copy of A Shropshire Lad and relished Housman’s lean, direct, and delicious verse once again.

One of the forms he used was a type of ballad that alternates lines of 8 syllables with lines of 6 syllables.  It’s the form Housman used in one of my favorites, Number XXXVI in Shropshire, a poem that opens:

White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies,
That leads me from my love.

It’s a seemingly simple form, but ideal for conveying emotion in a concise, concentrated way. It’s tricky because the lines are so short. There is no room for filler or fluff. I had tried my hand at it before, but neglected it recently.

So, with my emotion fortified by Housman’s verse, and my memory refreshed regarding a potent poetic form, I sat down this week to try my hand at “transfusing emotion.”

Let me know if you picked up the vibration.

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Sonnet about Home

You've read the ads and opulent brochures

Preparing to Go

As you distill your life, some sounds you keep:
The creak of joists, the refrigerator
Humming through the night, lulling you asleep.
Even in the dark you know every door
And how to find the switch for every light.
This house for all these years has been your home
But very soon you know will come a night
When you must leave these rooms, perchance to roam
Down fairer streets to dwellings not yet seen.
You’ve read the ads and glossy sales brochures,
Which promise life both active and serene.
You’ve bought the dream and all that it ensures.
You’re guaranteed a lot next to a green …
And yet … you fear your life there won’t be yours.


(2018)

NOTES: About 20 years ago, I travelled back to Missouri to visit my father in a nursing home. He’d been there for several months, and I could tell he was going stir crazy.

I thought he might want to go for a ride and maybe get a meal in a restaurant for a change of pace. But when I asked him what he wanted to do, he just said, “I want to go home.”

Fortunately, it was still possible to honor that request. He had kept his house and left it empty. I’m pretty sure was holding out hope to move back, when and if he were ever able to take care of himself again.

I was more than happy to help him escape the nursing home, if only for a short time. So we took the drive from Slater back to house near the old hospital in the southeast part of Marshall.

Dad had trouble walking on his bad leg, but we located the key, open the door and found the place just like he had left it. The air was stuffy, but everything was still in its place.

Dad plopped down in his big recliner and sat back with a big smile. “Home!” he said, drawing out the word for emphasis.

I checked the refrigerator, which was empty except for a few cans of beer, left by some visiting relative two or three years earlier. You see, dad never drank, and we never had alcohol of any kind in the house when I was growing up. But the refrigerator was still running and the beer was cold. When I asked him if he wanted a beer, he said sure.

So I opened two cans, and we sat together in the living room sipping stale beer and talking about the past.

He was as happy as I had ever seen him.

After awhile, the beer made him sleepy and he took a little nap in the chair where he had napped a thousand times before.

When he roused from his slumber, he knew it was time to head back to the nursing home. On the way, I swung by the Dairy Queen to get him an ice cream cone–something he had done for me countless times when I was a boy. It made me sad to deposit him back in that new residence that was most certainly not his home.

In the ensuing months, he went downhill pretty quickly. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.

Transitions of my own

Dad had lived in his house for nearly four decades. My wife and I have lived in ours for only 25, but it represents the longest I have ever lived in one place.

We’ve raised our children here, made friends, and become part of a strong community.

A recent transition to part-time work, led to a discussion of retirement timing, which naturally led to a discussion of potentially moving.

For me the inertia is strong. My wife says we should downsize and move. I ask where. Neither of us has a good answer that satisfies both of us for long.

Whatever we do, we know we have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff that must be pared way down.

Our kids are far flung. One lives in the San Francisco Bay area, the other in Memphis. Neither place appears to be a great place for outsiders like us to retire.

We avidly read articles with titles like “Best Places for Baby Boomers to Live,” and “Where Your Retirement Nest Egg Goes Further.”

We try to balance factors like weather, tax climate, cost of living, cultural attractions, and quality of healthcare.

We know there is a whole lot of marketing going on to people our age, but we keep coming to the conclusion there is no perfect place. So we put off decisions and fret.

Transition of a different sort

At the same time, I have been noticing intimations of another transition, more inevitable and more drastic than retirement. As I mentioned, my father passed away years ago. My mother preceded him in death. My three brothers–all much older–are gone now, too.

When my last brother died eight years ago, it hit me that I was now the last leaf on the tree. It feels strange for me, who was always the baby of my family, to now be the elder.

With troubling regularity these days, I get reports of schoolmates who have passed away. A couple of years ago I learned the first girl I ever kissed had died.

While previous class reunions marked the passing of a small number of our friends, these seemed like exceptional cases. Now we’re beginning to see our numbers diminish at an accelerated rate.

The prospect of my own death has never seemed very real or imminent to me. And it still doesn’t. I’ve got so many things left I still want to do. Places like Spain and Portugal and Norway I still want to see.  Grandchildren yet-to-be-conceived I still want to hold. Poems still unwritten. Tender moments still to share with my wife.

While I have a measure of attachment to the house where I’ve dwelled for the past quarter century, I’ve got a far greater attachment to this world, this body, this life.

And while I have faith in Jesus and assurance of eternal life, the attachment to this life strongly persists.

I know a very spiritual man who tells me not to worry about retiring because retirement is not a biblical concept.

He argues that we all have gifts we can put to good use until we die. And the best way we can prepare for the next life is to keep exercising our God-given talents doing something meaningful until the next life overtakes us.

He may be on to something. That perspective makes it seem less important where I’m physically located during the next phase of life, and more important what I’m doing with my time.

Sonnet on Truth, Beauty & Love

The golden light shone all about your hair

Perhaps it Was in Athens

Perhaps it was in Athens that you found
A glimpse of what you vaguely hoped was there.
You stood atop the pagans’ holy ground
The golden light shone all about your hair.

Perhaps it was in Florence when you stood
Before the boldly sculpted Hebrew king
That something stirred within you, something good,
Suggesting that one day your heart would sing.

But who would dream that your epiphany
Would strike in places both obscure and spare–
A country town on life’s periphery–
Or suburb that might well be anywhere.
Improbably, inside a darkened room
The golden light shone all about your hair.


(2018)

NOTES:  When she was in her early 20s, my wife, long before I met her, headed off to see Europe. She told her parents she was travelling with a friend, but she actually went alone. (I think the statute of limitations on that crime has long passed, so it’s safe to report it.)

She was a seeker, but I don’t believe she really knew what she was looking for. It could have been adventure.  It could have been truth and beauty.  I have a sneaking suspicion that she was trying to imitate Joni Mitchell and find love on some exotic Greek Island.

Although she broke her foot alighting from a bus, and had to fight off the amorous advances of a Greek boat captain, she made it back to the U.S. alive. But she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.

That epiphany actually happened a bit later in the spare bedroom of her grandparents’ house in a tiny town in northern Minnesota. She tells the story much better than I, but suffice to say it was one of those dramatic spiritual encounters where God gives a seeking, but still doubting heart, the assurance it needs.

Then, fast forward a few years to the point of the story where I come in.  It’s actually the story of my epiphany, but she was central to it.

I’m a reporter for a weekly newspaper in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. I’m covering a conference led by the then-Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Richard Halverson. It’s being held in a high school auditorium.

As I’m inching down the far right aisle with my camera in hopes of lining up a good shot, I see–sitting all by herself in the middle of the second row–this beautiful blonde woman.  (That is not terribly unusual. I am a lonely single guy, and I notice these things.)

But what really gets my attention is that the beautiful blonde woman is glowing with a golden aura. I kid you not. This is a darkened auditorium. There is no spotlight or any other natural light source shining on her. But she is glowing. But no one else apparently notices.

(Had I been a better reporter, I might have taken her picture. But I doubt that the light I saw would show up on normal 35mm film.)

So I proceed to get my photo of the chaplain and take notes for my story, but I keep one eye on the beautiful glowing blonde woman.

I observe, sadly, that at the end of the program she immediately approaches the chaplain and his companions, and appears to be a member of his party from Washington, D.C.

My hopes dashed, I go back to the office, write my story and go on with my life.

A couple of week later, I find myself at the local Presbyterian church I had recently started attending. I’m talking to my friend Marci, a fellow member of the singles group. Imagine my surprise when who should stride up but the blonde woman from the conference. (Although she is no longer glowing with supernatural light, she is still beautiful.)

And, as fate would have it, they know each other. Marci says, “Jan, I’d like you to meet my friend Bob. Bob, this is Jan.” Then Marci turns and quickly ducks out of the conversation.

Right then I am pretty convinced that God had made the beautiful blonde woman glow for me. Being a little slow on the uptake, I needed the equivalent of a neon arrow to get my attention.

I play it cool and wait to mention the fact that I had seen her glowing until a bit later. But I make sure to meet her the next week at church, and get her phone number. I am not going to let this one get away again.

STYLE NOTE: I should point out that I intentionally violated the rhyme scheme in the next to the last line. The rhyming word comes not at the end of the line but at the very beginning. It was on purpose because–well–the event being described was improbable.

Sonnet for Love in Late Summer

Wine barrel signed by Orson Welles

“We’ll Sell No Wine…”

“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)

So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.

So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.


(2016)

Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

NOTES: The shorter days and fainter light of September are stirring all sorts of poignant feelings. Something about this time of year makes me want to haul this old poem out of the cellar one more time.

I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles employed his considerable talent to pitch some middle-of-the-road wine back in the late 1970s. He had been a celebrated actor, who had co-written, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, what many still consider the best film ever made.

But he was difficult to work with, and had trouble raising money for his projects.  So he turned to advertising to pay the bills. His Paul Masson spots where he declared, “We will sell no wine before its time,” are classic examples of great advertising.

Paul Masson sales reportedly rose by 33% while that campaign ran.

Smoky Summer Haiku

Canada forest fires sent smoke south into Washington state

When Canada burns,
smoke paints the sky with color.
But we’re all coughing.


(2017)

Notes: I regret that conditions have made it appropriate to repost this poem from last summer.

 

Poetry Improv

Ballard Market Poetrymongers

Back at the Ballard Market

Made my second trip back to the Ballard Market this summer.

I’m always in awe of poets persisting in their craft and striving to earn a living. the Ballard Market has a couple of regulars who do just that.

Seven and Elliot show up for work with their manual typewriters and their signs that read: “Poems: Your Topic. Your Price.”

They are the improvisational performance artists of the poetry world. If you engage one of them, they will tell you to name a topic and then give them a few minutes.

When you return from sampling the goat cheese and perusing the organic vegetables, they will have a short poem to your theme.

I asked Elliot to write about writer’s block (since that is a topic close to my heart!)  Here is his effort:

Market Poem by Elliiot the Poet

That’s pretty insightful. I couldn’t do that on such short notice! I love the insight about “the voyage inside.”

Elliot told us that he can make some decent money “on a good day.” But, then there are other days when the take is not so good.

I shared my favorite Hayden Carruth haiku with him. The one about the Japanese haiku master Basho.

Basho, you made
A living writing haiku?
Wow! Way to go, man!

I’m always happy to see poets making a go of it.

Sonnet for Late Summer

Dry grass, abandoned boat, and old shed

Late Summer’s Sun

Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.

And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.

The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.


(2015)

Notes:  It’s not really late summer, but it just feels like it. The ground is parched, the foliage is showing its mortality, and I’m ready for some rain. Normally I would wait until September to haul out this sonnet, but this year it feels later than it is.

Extra credit to any poetry geek who can spot the homage to John Donne in this poem.