Father haiku

Dad's last bottle of Old Spice

Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
I’ll wear some today.


NOTES:  One of the most precious mementos I found as we prepared my parents’ home to be sold a couple of years ago was a bottle of my father’s after shave lotion tucked away in a bathroom cabinet.  He must have purchased this particular bottle just before he went into the nursing home because it was still nearly full.

Dad had been an Old Spice man as far back as I could remember, and the rich fragrance stirred up a host of memories.  You see, this last bottle dates back to the 1980s and it smells completely different from today’s weak sauce sold under the Old Spice brand.

Proctor & Gamble bought the Shulton company in 1990 and started changing things.  I noticed that the glass bottles gave way to plastic.  The grey stopper changed to red.  But worst of all, the new owners messed with the formula of the lotion itself.

When I found that old bottle of my Dad’s and took my first whiff, I was shocked at how much stronger and complex it was compared to the modern recipe.

I hadn’t smelled that classic fragrance for decades, and there is something powerful about the olfactory sense that connects us with the past.

Dad had taught me how to shave lathering up his Old Spice shaving mug and soap and brush.  I scratched off my thickening peach fuzz using his heavy-duty razor, the kind that took the old style disposable blades.

Of course, I nicked myself and he had to show me how to staunch the bleeding with an alum stick.  Thank goodness he didn’t use a straight razor.  I probably would have bled to death.

Dad taught me how to change oil and change a tire.  And though he was a master mechanic, he never was able to get me beyond the most basic level of automobile repair.  My fault, not his.

Dad taught me more important things, as well.  Things like keeping your word and doing an honest day’s work.  Things like owning up to your mistakes and saying you’re sorry.

Although the Great Depression short-circuited his education and forced him to drop out of high school to earn a living, he never stopped learning.  He left behind a robust collection of books including the writings of ancient historians and early church fathers.

He took his faith seriously, and didn’t make it too complicated.  The most worn of all his books was his Bible.  It was literally falling apart from use, held together with duct tape.

Of course, as a teenager, I was much too smart to go for my father’s myths and legends.  It was only after pursuing my own path and hitting some rough dead ends that I wound up pretty much where he had been all along.

It was amazing how much wiser the Old Man seemed to me when I was 28 than he did when I was 18.

He taught me perseverance in hard times.  When his one foray into business failed when I was in grade school, he swallowed his pride, got up the next day and went to work for someone else to support his family.

When my brother Bill died in a scuba-diving accident leaving a wife and 3 young kids, my Dad flew halfway across the country to handle matters.  In the midst of what must have been his own inconceivable grief, brought that little family back with him and took care of them until they could get back on their feet.

The most poignant lesson Dad taught me was about faithfulness as demonstrated by how he treated my Mother.  Theirs was not fairytale romance.  When they got married in the depths of the Great Depression, Dad was working on a farm crew for a dollar a day.  He had to talk his boss into giving him Saturday off so he could have the whole weekend for a honeymoon.

They started out dirt poor, and only very gradually worked their way into what might be called the lower middle class.  It was a great day when we moved to town and got central heat and indoor plumbing!

But, to me, theirs was a great love story.   Dad always treated Mom with affection and respect.  There was never any question about his loyalty to her.  And, when Mom eventually began her long slide into dementia, Dad cared for her personally.  And when she finally had to enter a nursing home, he visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

So, a couple of times a year, I pull out that grey stopper from Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice and splash some on my face in his honor.  All day long I catch whiffs of bay leaf and clove and cinnamon, and I’m reminded of what it means to be a good man.

 

Why write poetry?

Samuel Johnson had things to say about writing.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Samuel Johnson

I Sing Not for Glory

I sing not for glory nor for bread,
Nor for the praise of the credentialed clique.
But for hire more valuable instead,
To touch the honest kindred heart I seek.

I sing for lovers when love is green,
When time stops for a solitary kiss.
When light shines anew as with new eyes seen,
I celebrate your fey and fragile bliss.

I sing for the lonely, lovelorn heart,
When light grows cold and aching will not cease,
When your enchanted world falls all apart,
I offer modest salve to give you peace.

I sing for the pilgrim searching soul
Pursuing the heart’s true cause and treasure.
May heaven’s hound, you hasten to your goal,
And propel you to your proper pleasure.

I sing for the wise who see their end,
And, too, for those who have not yet awoke.
For to a common home we all descend,
With common dirt for all our common cloak.

I sing not for money nor for art,
Nor to amuse curators of our trade.
The simple wages of the simple heart
Will satisfy when my accounts are weighed.

 

©Bobby Ball 2017


NOTES:  Samuel Johnson was a funny guy.  If his aphorism is correct, that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” then poets are the biggest blockheads of them all.

A few diligent writers of books and screenplays and advertising copy can manage to make a living scribbling words.  But poets need another gig to pay the bills.

Most often, they teach.  Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest and a teacher.  Robert Frost famously tried his hand at farming, but he also taught and lectured.

Some poets have conducted quite conventional careers during the day to support their poetry habit at night.  Insurance executive Wallace Stevens and physician William Carlos Williams are a couple of well known examples.

Englishman Philip Larkin earned his living as a librarian.  American Charles Bukowski was a postal clerk.

Dylan Thomas really couldn’t do much else besides write poems, and so he waged a losing war with poverty until he drank himself to death.  He probably would have perished much sooner except for the fact he was able to charm wealthy female admirers into becoming patronesses.

About the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned gentlemen is that while I sometimes commit poetry, I also need another means to make a living.

I started my professional life in the 1970s as an ink-stained wretch of a newspaperman.  While chasing deadlines was exhilarating when I was still a young man, there were already storm clouds on the horizon for journalism.  Afternoon dailies were going extinct, and cities that had formerly had 2, 3 or more newspapers were seeing them merge or go out of business.

Little did I know that in just a few years, the internet would come along and fatally wound the mainstream media organizations, forcing them to trim their newsrooms and close  regional bureaus.

I sensed that there was a disturbing uniformity of political opinion in the newsrooms of my youth.  My own political worldview was still evolving, but even back then everybody I worked with seemed to be left-leaning and Reagan-loathing.  The lockstep groupthink bothered me.

In my naïve idealism, I thought journalists were supposed to be fiercely objective.  I never caucused with any party, and I strove to play my own coverage right down the middle.  I’d have coffee with both Democrats and Republicans, and always made sure to pay my own check because I didn’t want to owe anybody anything.

When the owner of one paper tried to pressure me to join the local Rotary Club, I refused because I didn’t want membership to influence my coverage of any organization.

If I had still been a journalist this past year I think my head would have exploded.  With news organizations colluding with political campaigns, and sharing debate questions in advance with the favored candidate, it became clear that our creaky old news institutions had jumped the shark.

I would have burned my press card in protest.

I wish I could say I was smart enough to foresee the death of journalism and jump ship intentionally, but it was more random than that.  I was about to get married and I needed a job in Minneapolis.  The cash-strapped metropolitan dailies weren’t hiring right then, and so I took the first job I could get.

Fortunately I had stumbled my way into direct marketing. That later led me into non-profit fundraising.  The bulk of my career since has been helping good causes raise money.  Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, defending the persecuted, visiting those in prison, bringing the good news to those in bondage — that sort of thing.

I began to appreciate what I do a whole lot more when I stopped thinking about it as marketing and started thinking about it as “soul stirring.”  When I’m doing it right, I touch the heart to stir people up to good works, and inspire them to be generous.

If you ask me, that’s really just a short step away from poetry.  It’s all soul stirring.

 

Sonnet inspired by a vile song

Love the one you're with ...

Illusions of Innocence

Time was, the sun stood high and corn grew green,
The juice of youth coursed through our throbbing veins.
Love easy and free as the night was keen.
The grass our bed, our bath the gentle rains.

We took up books of verse and lingered long,
Imagined we were wise as those in odes,
Took guidance from the lyrics of a song,
Cast off the quaint restraint of outworn codes.

All along, ignoring every sign:
The chill that comes and strikes the landscape dead,
The smut that spoils the corn and rots the vine,
The vulture drifting gravely overhead,
And, one subtle clue even less benign,
That not one selfless thought entered our head.


NOTES:  Reflecting back on my youth, I am chagrined.  There is an old aphorism that states, “If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything.”  There was a variation that went something like, “If you believe nothing, you’re liable to believe anything.”

By the late 1960s, many of us in my generation had pretty much had our beliefs in God, country and traditional morality watered down to pitifully weak broth.

Mainline churches increasingly didn’t even believe their own teachings.  Patriotism was dealt a severe blow by the national identity crisis over the Vietnam War.  The glowing reports of the sexual revolution made old fashioned morals seem not only quaint, but stupid.  If you were missing out, you were not only square, you were a chump.

It was only natural that we would adopt values from the popular culture of the time.  And the most influential popular culture of the day for the young was music.

Thankfully, there were some voices that seemed to have a moral compass.  Bob Dylan, for example, started out as a folk-protest-poet, and never stopped looking for truth, going down whatever roads it took him.

But prophets like Dylan were scare and rare.

A good part of the steady diet we heard on the radio was more on the level of “Light My Fire” or “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Teenage libidos probably didn’t need any extra encouragement if you know what I’m talking about.

Of all the songs from those days, one stands out as especially reprehensible.  Of course, I’m referring to Stephen Stills’ paean to infidelity, “Love the One You’re With.”

Set to a catchy tune with some nice acoustic guitar licks, the song’s poison message is wrapped in layers of cotton candy lyrics.

If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking to
Concentration slips away
Cause your baby is so far away

Well there’s a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with, love the one you’re with
Love the one you’re with, love the one you’re with.

That there is some great relationship advice.  Just great.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who hates the song.  Even former front man of punk bands Scratch and Jesus Lizard, David Yow — an expert in vile lyrics if there ever was one — agrees with me.

He says he hates that song so much he’d like to choke Stephen Stills to death.

I wouldn’t go that far.  I’m just chagrined that I once thought it was a cool song.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t hate all songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  “Our House” is a wonderful little tune about domestic tranquility.  It was written by Graham Nash when he and Joni Mitchell were in love, living at her house with “two cats in the yard.”

It’s a pity that tranquility couldn’t last.  But with the band singing “love the one you’re with” every night, how could it possibly last?

Love poem

I loved you first in lilac time

Flower Time

I saw you first in jonquil time,
When you were bathed in grace.
You sat aglow with fire sublime,
And golden shone your face.

I loved you first in lilac time.
A bloom I plucked for you.
I wrote you verse with song and rhyme.
I hoped you loved me too.

I kissed you first in tulip time,
It must have been a sign.
The buds and we were in our prime
When your two lips met mine.

I married you in daisy time
On summer’s longest day.
We traded rings and heard bells chime.
We pledged always to stay.

Too soon we’ve come to aster time.
The days are shorter now.
Would stealing some be such a crime?
We’ll make it right somehow.

Should we endure ’til wintertime,
The time when flowers sleep,
Dreams we’ll share of a gentler clime
Where we no more shall weep.


NOTES:  Today is Valentine’s Day, and it’s unseasonably warm here in the Pacific Northwest.  It won’t be long before the jonquils and crocuses start poking their heads up through the mulch.

And it won’t be much longer than that before my favorite  — the lilacs — grace us with their fragrance and beauty.

It’s a good day for a modest little love poem.

Winter sonnet

That bleak season

That Bleak Season

That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.

Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.

That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.


Notes:  If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter.  That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.

Sprung rhythm was not free verse.  Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.

I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here.  This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm.  But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.

This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet.  It still has 10 syllables to each line.  It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.

Winter echo

Hoarfrost

FROST IN MORNING

When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.

Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.


NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen.  The world was completely coated, clothed in white.

This was approximately 35  years ago.  Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show.  He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.

I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day.  Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter.  But I don’t think so.

It might have been his own work.  But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.

This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face.  This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a marvelous poem along these lines, Spring and Fall.  It’s one of my most beloved poems of all time.

Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more.  The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty.  It ends with despair.

But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.

“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”

(For a real treat, listen to Richard Burton read this poem.  He reads poetry as it should be read, not with whiny, tinny detachment, but with passion.)

So, as I look at nature, there are signs of both despair and hope.   Leaden echoes and golden echoes alike.

When I see the world covered in frost, I think of a more perfect world.  A world like what may have been before sin and death entered into it.  Or the world that is to come.

Late fall sonnet

Autumn leaves

Falling Leaves Like Lovers

The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.

But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality–
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.

For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down–they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.


Notes:  Some of my favorite poems compare the death that comes in the autumn to the end of a love.  Or poems that use the dying natural world when winter approaches as the backdrop for the story.

I think of Robert Frost’s Reluctance, with its heartbreaking line about it being treasonous “to bow and accept the end of a love, or a season.”

Or Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones, which uses a frozen landscape as the setting for the realization that a relationship has ended.

Then, there is John Crowe Ransom’s Winter Remembered, with its wonderful image comparing the forsaken lover’s cold fingers to “Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.”

I may never have discovered Ransom had it not been for my 11th grade English teacher,  Paul Hagedorn, back in Marshall, Missouri.  We spent an inordinate amount of time on poetry that year.  The major assignment, as I recall it, was to select an American poet from a lengthy list, and then immerse yourself in the writer’s work, and finally write a paper.

Knowing nothing about most of the choices, I picked John Crowe Ransom solely because I liked the sound of his name.  I got lucky, because I discovered I enjoyed his work.  Had I chosen Wallace Stevens with his difficult, cerebral verse, I probably would have flunked.

Another assignment was to prepare a notebook of our favorite poems.  I remember making daring choices, including song lyrics by such radicals as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  Now  that Dylan as been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I consider myself foresighted.

I was fortunate that Mr. Hagedorn approved of my choices.  He was the cool, young teacher back then.  He managed to fan the flames of inspiration and love for poetry.  They smoldered for years, flaming up now and then, and have finally started burning here in this blog.