(Yet Another) Poem Against Alzheimer’s

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End of a Monarchy

A simple story that I yearned to tell,
Just two, a boy and orange butterfly,
Enchanted by the lavish summer flush
Of lark and lilac, hollyhock and thrush.
+++He did not really know just why he wept.

At first it seemed a game of innocence
To chase the dainty kite around the yard.
Its random flight impossible to track,
Just as it drew in range it fluttered back.
+++He laughed as if this day would never end.

In time the butterfly would come to rest
Upon the sweet and fragrant purple bloom.
The boy would seize at last that prize he sought,
But saw at once he’d ruined what he had caught.
+++Tears dropped upon an orange, broken wing.

You brought, dear friend, all this to life on film,
The first production of your long career.
Quite primitive, for sure, it was, and raw.
We were not ones to dwell on any flaw.
+++For we were making art and we were glad.

We ventured forth for beauty, truth and love.
We vowed we’d float the Mississippi’s length.
We’d plumb our nation’s soul and sing its song.
We were so young and casual and strong.
+++And confident our time was all our own.

But life’s vicissitudes drew us apart.
There’d be no sequel to our maiden work.
We’d never float that river on a raft,
Nor join to sharpen one another’s craft.
+++No use to wonder now what might have been.

For time has caught up with your mind too soon.
The wings on which you soared are broken now.
Your free and fancy flight has turned to stone.
You’ve gone and left us lonesome and alone.
+++Too late I realized just why I wept.

(2020)


(Butterfly Photo by Justin DoCanto on Unsplash)

NOTES: In 1968, my friend and classmate Gene Marksbury played his new album for me, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. The duo’s album Sounds of Silence had been my very first record purchase a couple of years earlier. I was already a fan.

There had always been heartache, poignancy and disappointment in their music, but this new album took it further. It seemed to cover the whole span of life. Youth and young love, breakdowns of relationships, and — finally — the losses that come with old age.

The album ended with the admonition that has haunted me ever since:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence. A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you.

I have a photograph from that era long ago:

Gene Marksbury, Bobby Ball and Clyde Smith
From left to right: Gene Marksbury, me, and Clyde Smith

The shot shows us as we prepared for a camping trip on the banks of the Missouri River a few miles from our home. Gene is the one on the left and our friend Clyde Smith is on the right holding the rifle. Years before, we were members of the same slot car racing club and spent a lot of time together. In the insanity of adolescence, we had once tried to hold our own 24-hour Le Mans slot car race.

But by time of this photo we were all probably about 16 or 17, and primed for more challenging adventures. It was also about this time that Clyde somehow got access to a movie camera. He was already a talented photographer and he was eager to make a movie.

I had written a very short story for an English class and he decided that this would be the basis for his first film. The story was about a boy chasing a butterfly, catching it and then instantly regretting that he had damaged it beyond repair. I had called the story “End of a Monarchy.”

It was the most basic of plots, but Clyde recruited a younger friend to be the star and somehow wrangled an unfortunate butterfly to play the supporting role. And, to his credit, Clyde made it happen. It was shot on primitive, grainy, 8mm film, but when he was finished, he had himself a movie.

I was delighted, of course.

After high school graduation, Clyde and I came very close to going to the same college. We dreamed big about a future of artistic collaboration. But I received a scholarship from a different school with an offer I couldn’t refuse, and we went our separate directions.

I emerged from college a few years later armed with a B.A in philosophy and classics, and no serious plan for the future. What followed was a checkered career. Bouncing from fry cook to restaurant manager to salesman to journalist to copy writer to creative director … most of the time earning a living to support my family and my poetry habit.

Gene’s life took a circuitous route, but he ended up teaching college back in our hometown for a few years. He now owns a winery and operates a tasting room in nearby Glasgow, MO, overlooking the Missouri River. His Bushwhacker Bend Norton Dry Red is pretty tasty.

Clyde, meanwhile, headed out to Hollywood and forged a successful career as a cinematographer and director of photography. He made some real movies and several really cool music videos for Weird Al Yankovic. Clyde even won an Emmy at one point.

Clyde and I had not seen each other for decades. But three years ago my wife and I were in Los Angeles and I made a point of reconnecting with him. We spend a delightful lunch with him and had a wonderful time making up for lost time. We reminisced for more than two hours, and he reminded me of details about our youthful escapades that I had forgotten.

I did notice that Clyde repeated a couple of stories during the course of our conversation but didn’t think too much of it.

After we returned home, Clyde and I exchanged a few messages. But he soon stopped replying and I got busy. Sometime later I realized I hadn’t heard from him for quite some time. I remembered his seemingly insignificant forgetfulness during out lunch and began to worry.

Late last year I went to his Facebook page and my fears were confirmed. From information posted there, I learned that Clyde was suffering from Alzheimer’s and had declined rapidly. He was already in the later stages and had reached the point where his wife was no longer able to care for him at home and keep him safe.

Since then she has been able to move him into a care facility that specializes in such patients, but she reports that he no longer recognizes her, their daughter, their dog, or anyone elseIn 1968, my friend and classmate Gene Marksbury played his new album for me, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. The duo’s album Sounds of Silence had been my very first record purchase a couple of years earlier. I was already a fan.
There had always been heartache, poignancy and disappointment in their music, but this new album took it further. It seemed to cover the whole span of life. Youth and young love, breakdowns of relationships, and — finally — the losses that come with old age.
The album ended with the admonition that has haunted me ever since:
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence. A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you.
I have a photograph from that era long ago:.

I lost my mother to dementia many years ago, and this news about my friend has dredged up all sorts of grief and regret. I’ve been thinking of all the questions I wish I could have asked my mother when she still was able to answer.

I’ve been wishing that Clyde and I had stayed in closer touch since we left our Missouri hometown. I’ve been wishing we had had the opportunity to work together again.

I’ve been thinking of my past, my family, my friends, trying to preserve as many many memories as I possibly can.

I’ve been repeating Paul Simon’s lyrics in my head and wondering, when you lose your memories, what do you have left?

Poem in Autumn

Autumn leaves

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)


When I wrote this one last year, I had no idea how prophetic it would be. In the past 12 months, I’ve learned of the deaths of my sister-in-law, and a college dormmate. And just recently, I discovered that the high school buddy I shared more experiences with than any other has entered an Alzheimer’s nursing home.

I used to love the fall.

Spring Haiku

What good are alder trees anyway?

Surely alder has
a purpose. But every spring
I sneeze and wonder.


(2019)

Notes: I really thought I had a good plan this year.  Take off for two weeks on vacation at the beginning of March and when I returned, the alder allergy season would be drawing to a close.

Alas, crazy winter weather persisted while I was away and I returned mid-March to a greeting of pollen bursting out in all its glory.

Maybe I’ll just arrange to be elsewhere for all of March next year. A pity because it’s one of the prettiest months here in the Pacific Northwest.

 

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.

“Brothers, I Loved You All”

Hayden Carruth
Hayden Carruth

One of my literary-minded friends has introduced me to the America poet Hayden Carruth, who lived from 1921 to 2008.

I’m not sure how I could have gone so long and gotten so old without finding him.  (Just another example of the gaping holes in my education, I guess.)

Carruth is growing on me.

Like Robert Frost, he moved to the Vermont countryside and learned to how to farm.  Carruth’s poems about some of his country neighbors are vivid, precise character sketches that remind me of the country folk I knew in my youth.

Like Frost, Carruth did a bit of teaching to help pay the bills.  He was aware of the looming shadow Frost cast over later Vermont poets, and he played with it a bit in some of his poems.

But he seems to be ornerier than Frost.  And more down to earth.  He seems to be a common man.  But a wicked smart, extremely well-read common man.

He dwells at that intersection between classic poets from an earlier age who paid attention to meter and rhyme, and the moderns of the last century, who reveled in the free innovation for the sake of innovation.

His poem, Late Sonnet, written later in his life, is one of his most interesting, I’ve read yet.

LATE SONNET

by Hayden Carruth

For that the sonnet no doubt was my own true
singing and suchlike other song, for that
I gave it up half cold-heartedly to set
my lines in a fashion that proclaimed its virtue
original in young arrogant artificers who
had not my geniality nor voice and yet
their fashionableness was persuasive to me,–what
shame and sorrow I pay!
+++++++++++++++++++++And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
these being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.

I read this as the confession of a poet who abandoned the craft he knew in his youth to pursue the fashionable trends of modern style.  He contrasts the pretentiousness of modern poets — the “arrogant artificers” — with the pure horn playing of jazzman Sidney Bechet, who — according to Carruth — emphasized feeling over originality.

Carruth developed this idea more fully in an interview published in Contemporary Authors.

“When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large.

“We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature.

“Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it’s a hope; we have no proof.”

Carruth has helped me put my finger on what has bugged me about so much of modern poetry for a long time. I couldn’t quite define it until now. But after reading this, it has come into focus.

In the secular despair of the 20th Century, artists sought to take the place of God, who had been declared dead by the wise men of the age.

As Carruth said, “if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization.”

Cultural restoration through poetry!  Moral improvement through exposure to art.

The divine revelation of the Bible had been debunked courtesy of Darwin and Freud and others, faith had been undermined, and the vacuum that was created was seeking to fill itself with the work of artists and poets.

I would submit that this is much too big an assignment for poetry.

Don’t get me wrong.  I hold a pretty high view of poetry.  It can do a lot.  It can inspire, comfort and bless a soul.  It can express rich and deep feeling in elevated language. But I think the artistes of the last century reached too far.

My hypothesis is that this poetic overreach was responsible for much mischief — and a lot of unreadable poetry in the 20th Century.

Lest  you think I am making this up, Stevens was explicit about his intention to replace God with poetry.

According to Poetry Foundation, Stevens maintained that art was “the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity.”

I find Stevens’ abstraction cold and heartless — and frankly boring.

I disagree with his premise and his conclusion.  Just because Stevens didn’t believe in God didn’t mean that God was dead. (Please note: this theory is still under construction.)

If God is not dead, then poetry does not need to strive to be something it is not.  It does not need to replace divine revelation.  Since God is not dead, poetry can slip comfortably back into its proper role.

The poet can cease stop trying to take the place of God and settle back into the role of a human created in the image of God, creating beauty that reflects the beauty of God and his creation.  And also telling the truth about the tragedy of how the creation has fallen.

Feel free to check out the blog for some decidedly un-modern poetry…

 

Philosophy and Poetry

The poet in a philosophical mood

A Short Philosophical Love Note

Of what does missing consist?
(But first, know this, you are missed.)
It could be the lack of tender attack –
You see, I’ve missed getting kissed.

It might be like a disease
That only your treatment can ease.
The symptoms persist and although I resist
I wind up down on my knees.

It’s metaphysical tricks –
That’s strange, I know, but it sticks –
What else could explain the internal pain
When my heart my law contradicts.

It could be all in the mind,
If mental’s the way we’re designed.
But wishing you were does not make you here –
That’s truth of a different kind.

Who plumbs the depths of the soul?
And who knows the depth of the hole
Gouged when a lover heads for safe cover,
Exacting outrageous toll?


NOTES: When I headed off to college, my long-suffering father advised me to study “something practical.”  He suspected that I was likely to squander my opportunity at getting the education he never had the chance to acquire.

It might have been my hair, which had not been cut since the end of football season.  It might have been his knowledge that I was not the type of kid who listened to his elders.

So, of course, I went straight ahead and majored in philosophy with a minor in Greek and Latin.

And, also of course, the universe proved my father right.  Upon graduation I entered the job market and landed a coveted job as fry cook at a pancake house.

It was the only job I could get.

I had gravitated towards philosophy because I wanted to find answers to the big questions of life. I wanted to find Truth, Beauty and Love, and thought that philosophy was the route.

I didn’t find the answers I sought in philosophy. Instead, I grew weary of hairsplitting arguments and arcane debates about the meaning of language.

By my senior year, I was tired of the whole enterprise.

But I did find truth in a most unsuspected place. Not in the heavy and thick books of philosophical and impenetrable prose.  But in a dusty old Bible, the same Bible my father had been pointing me towards all my life.

Ironically, not only was my father right about studying something practical, he turned out to be right about where to find truth as well.

But off at college, I experienced my own personal John Newton/Saul of Tarsus moment.

Like the notorious English slave trader, I realized I had been blind about my own wretchedness.

Like the self-righteous Pharisee, I was knocked to the ground and scales fell from my eyes.

Like both of them, I was touched by grace and set on a new path with a completely fresh start.

After searching for truth in the ancient writings of Socrates and Plato, and seeking power in the seductive teachings of the East, I discovered that the truth I sought had been under my nose all the time.

But now that I had found truth, I still had to figure out what to do with my life. I was a decent short order cook, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t my calling.

I finally hit on the idea that I needed to do something that involved writing. And in those days in the afterglow of Watergate, this meant journalism.  So I went back to school to take just enough classes to land a newspaper job.

We all wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.

I was delighted when I landed my first freelance stringer assignment. I drove to City Hall, spent 3 hours at a city council meeting, drove back home and then spent another 4 or 5 hours writing up as many stories as I could. The next morning, I drove the finished copy to the office.

I was delighted that for this they’d pay me a whole 15 bucks! And if one of the stories was decent, I might get a treasured byline.

What I didn’t realize was that the newspaper business had already started its long, slow decline. By the early 1980s, afternoon dailies were already going out of business all across the U.S.

Newsrooms were shrinking and it was tough to get on with a major metropolitan paper. And this was all before the internet cut the legs out from under newspapers’ business model.

Impatient with the career prospects at the big papers, I took a job as the editor of a financial newsletter.

(Had I been a better investigative journalist, I would have discovered that this publication had nothing to do with reporting objective truth. Instead, it was the front-end lead generator for a rare coin and precious metals dealer. It was really a direct marketing enterprise.)

But things worked out, and that first direct marketing job eventually led me to doing fundraising for good causes, which has been my career for the past quarter century.

But for several years — before I found the love of my life and the mother of my children — my love life followed the same tragic-comic early trajectory as my circuitous career path.

Full of false starts and spectacular missteps.

After one of these disasters, many years ago, I wrote the poem posted today.

It’s about the only thing I have to show today for my philosophy major.