Grandfather Free Verse

My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer.
My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer. The handwritten note says, “100 degrees in shade..”

The Day the Call Came

The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.

The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.

The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.

So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.

By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.

Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.

The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.

Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.

And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.

By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.


NOTES:  I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.

This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.

Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.

So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.

The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.

A Delightful Discovery

Just yesterday, I published my little sonnet, “Late Summer Sun” in this blog.  This morning as I was reading the wonderful book, “The Wild Braid,” by Stanley Kunitz.

When I came to his poem “Touch Me,” I had to pause.  This poem seemed to be hitting some of same notes.  Much deeper, but with little glimpses of the same melody.

The two poems are very different on the surface — mine is a sonnet, his is free verse.  He makes different observations about nature.

But the season is the same — late summer.  And there is something similar in the underlying emotion. Here’s his poem:

Touch Me
–Stanley Kunitz

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
++++++++++++++ and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Late Summer Sonnet

Late summer's sun has baked the grass to brown

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.


NOTES:  It’s not really late summer yet, but it feels like it.  It has been hot and dry, giving us the sense of late August when July hasn’t even ended.

The seasons seen to come and go more quickly of late.  Perhaps I’m paying closer attention. Perhaps I realize more summers now lie behind me than still ahead.

Something in the air caused me to pull this sonnet out of the vault today.  I snapped the photo on my late afternoon walk.

 

 

Suburban Summer Sonnet

Suburban summer

Our Paradise

Wafting comes the mower’s comforting hum,
Assuring all is just as it should be.
Our gates and fences all are rightly plumb,
We celebrate our capability.

New curbs and gutters sluice away wild rain,
Alarms and locks protect our doors from breach,
Our lives arranged to minimize our pain,
Designed to keep us safely out of reach.

But wreaking roots upheave the sidewalk path,
And worms devour our precious woolen thread,
The black and red mold creep into our bath,
Insomnia disturbs our peace in bed.
Despite our engineering and our math,
Our paradise is something less instead.


NOTES:  Summertime has finally come to the Pacific Northwest.  It seems fitting to haul out this sonnet from last year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate material comforts and modern conveniences.  Probably even more than most of my friends and colleagues.

I was born in the middle of the last century, and started out life on a farm that was primitive, even for that time.

How primitive?  Well, we milked our own cow, raised our own chickens for eggs, butchered our own hogs, and raised our own vegetables in the garden.

For special occasions and Sunday dinners, Mother would grab one of the slower chickens, chop off her head, and fry her up.

When we sold our farm to the Amish, they took one look at the house, and commenced on an immediate upgrading and remodeling project.

As for me, I was delighted in my new home in a Missouri farm town of 12 thousand souls.  For the first time in my life I had my own room, central heat, and indoor plumbing.

I could take a bath in something that wasn’t a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor.  In freshly drawn water that hadn’t been previously used by other members of the family.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I didn’t even notice that we didn’t have air conditioning, even when the Missouri summer visited its triple digit heat and humidity  upon us.

So, I am thankful for many things.  I am so  thankful I can enjoy sardines from Norway and wine from France.

I am grateful for antibiotics, and the miracles of modern medicine.  I missed the polio epidemic, but just barely.  Had I been just a couple of years older, I could have suffered withered limbs or worse, like the older brothers and sisters of some of my friends who were not so fortunate.

All of my ancestors as far back as I can research were dirt farmers.  I am grateful for a professional job in a meaningful enterprise.  (Inside work.  No heavy lifting.)

Many years ago, when I moved out to Seattle, we settled in the suburbs because — even then — the city was too expensive.  We made a serendipitous choice, because our little suburb has become a highly desirable place for Microsoft employees coming here to live from all over the world.

Heck, in one of those specious magazine “Top 15” lists, our little suburb was once ranked the “Most Friendly Town in America.”

Crime is low.  Violent crime is virtually non-existent.  The weather is temperate.  People take care of their property.  Unemployment is not really an issue.  You can walk or jog without fear.

Yet, sometimes it is good to remember that even heaven on earth is not really heaven.

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?