One day, you get word,
The very first girl you kissed
Long ago … has died.
One day, you get word,
The very first girl you kissed
Long ago … has died.
Had Reb been a better shot
I wouldn’t be here.
One of my favorite things to do when I’ve got spare time it to drop in at a used bookstore and go treasure hunting in the poetry section.
Not looking for anything in particular, but rather, just poking around to see what might be there.
The surprises are half the fun of it. I’ve discovered some great poets this way. And stumbled across collections of poems I’m enjoying to this day.
I know it would be more efficient to simply go straight to Amazon and have their algorithms tell me what I should be interested in. But, it’s just not the same thing.
The online bookstore experience lacks the hand of providence … the delight of surprise … the magic of serendipity.
Like what happened to me the other day when I went into town to get my teeth cleaned. (No cavities!) So I celebrated with a visit to the local used bookstore.
It’s a small, narrow poetry section, but with several shelves within it. I was standing up on a chair to start with the A, B and C authors, when I ran across a collection by Raymond Carver.
I had only recently been introduced to Carver by my friends Mark Neigh and Seth La Tour. (Seth is a poet himself, over at One Poem Every Day.)
I had grown to appreciate Carver, but did not have any of his books. So I was excited to find one of his books in decent condition. It was A New Path to the Waterfall, which I remember Seth recommending highly.
I was to learn that this was Carver’s last collection, some written while he knew he was dying from cancer. It had an introduction by his wife, Tess Gallagher, who helped him organize and edit the book.
So, I bought it and a couple of other books and took them home. The next day, when I sat down to read it I found one of those little surprises.
Thumbing through, the first page I came to was the dedication page. Carver simply and emphatically had dedicated the book to: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.
And just below the dedication, was the hand-scrawled autograph: Tess
Well, that was fun! Tess had actually signed this book for someone. But, then, when I turned back to the title page, there was a longer handwritten message:
Tess Gallagher for Carolyn Maddux, meeting in Shelton. Have Ray’s and my last time w/him writing ~ until …
When you consider that Carver had died just a few years before at an all-too-early age 50, you can see how my treasure hunt turned from fun to poignant.
I did a little research and found that Carolyn Maddux is a Northwest poet, herself. Still alive and living in Shelton, Washington, as far as I can tell. I wondered a bit about how and why books find themselves in a used bookstore, but then turned back to the book itself.
When I read Tess’s introduction, the poignancy grew. In it, she gives an account of the last months of Carver’s life. She writes how scattered the pages of the book on the floor and crawled around on her hands and knees, reading and deciding by intuition which pages should come next.
She also made this statement about Carver and his poetry:
It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity. The truths he came to through his poetry involved a dismantling of artifice to a degree not even Williams, whom he had admired early on, could have anticipated.
That’s an amazing statement: Poetry as a spiritual necessity. But when you read the book, you can begin to see how it can be true.
And what a book of poems this is! For just a taste, this is the book’s last poem, which is also engraved on Carver’s tombstone in Port Angeles, Washington.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved. To feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The proper name for these critters was “cicadas,” but for me, they will always be locusts.
These bugs made a terrible racket when they started their serenade. Some sources say the noise is so loud it can damage the human ear.
I won’t take that bet. They can be exceedingly annoying.
But they are also fascinating because they molt and leave behind an almost perfect exoskeleton. As a kid, I would collect these artifacts like little relics.
Dancing Echoes does a great job coming close to the original idea of haiku.
The old haiku masters combined words with beautiful calligraphy and drawings to form a total experience.
Dancing Echoes pairs each poem with a beautiful photograph. In this effort, she approaches the complete experience achieved by the old masters. You could say it’s haiku for the modern age.
The cicada haiku from Dancing Echoes reminded me of an old poem sitting in my files gathering dust. It’s not haiku. But it does feature a cicada — or rather, a locust.
SOMETIMES IN THE
Sometimes in the moonlight
The feeling comes afresh,
The old familiar feeling,
The aching of the flesh.
Sometimes in the summer
The noisy locust strains
Against the skin that holds him.
To shed his crusty chains.
When the trees grow weary
Of their summer masquerade,
And fallen leaves are gathered
I hunger for the shade
Of limbs that never falter
And love that never cools,
Where ruin never alters,
And where death never rules.
A recent trip back to my old hometown prompted some haiku.
Thomas Wolfe may have said “you can’t go home again,” but you actually can. It just won’t be the same as it was.
I’m not sure if there were any satori moments on this trip, but there were pangs of the heart. I’m posting this as a Father’s Day remembrance.
The old hometown seems
Smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.
Last time going home,
The old place sitting empty.
Memories and dust.
Mother and Father,
And all three of my brothers.
I alone remain.
Well over sixty
Dad built a barn by himself.
Now it, too, molders.
Father’s old Bible
Held together with duct tape.
Now he’s face to face.
(A few years ago, on an earlier visit, my brother and I walked through the town cemetery)
Last time I saw him
We strolled between tombstones.
Now he has his own.
I left to find truth.
Yet here I am seeking scraps.
Scraps of memories.
My recent infatuation with haiku master Issa, has led me to his poems about his family. Sad story. His mother died very early. His father remarried, but the new wife was not a warm, nurturing stepmom.
So, Issa leaves home early to wander and find his fortune.
Later, as his father was dying of typhus, Issa returns home to care for his father in his dying days. His verse about his father’s last days is a heartbreaker.
Last time, I think
I’ll brush the flies
from my father’s face.
I was reminded of my last contact with my father. This is a different time and a different age. Instead of being in the same room brushing away flies, I was 2,000 miles away. I attempted to reach my father by telephone.
Last call to my dad.
Nurses wheeled him to the phone.
Couldn’t hear a thing.
Dropped my wife off at the airport this morning before dawn. The moon was full, and I was reminded why I like Issa most of all the old Japanese haiku masters.
Issa was so human and compassionate, despite the many losses and disappointments he experienced.
He certainly endured his share of suffering. He mother died when he was a young boy. His stepmother was manipulative and cruel. After his father died, his stepmother refused to recognize the will, which would have given Issa part of the estate. He saw all of his children die before him. And he outlived his beloved wife Kiku, who died giving birth.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I’ll quote one of his most touching poems, written after his wife’s death. By Issa:
The moon tonight —
I even miss
There’s something so honest and sweet and human about that. He loved her and he loved even her imperfections. The sight of the moon brought it all back and stirred up his intense memories. He missed her and he missed all of her.
One other poem by Issa on this theme of loss:
Outliving them all —
Ah, the cold!
I cannot claim to comprehend Issa’s pain. My wife is still very much alive–just out of town for a few days. I’ve never lost a child. But having lost both parents and all my brothers, I have caught a glimpse of what Issa is saying about “outliving them all.” Just a faint glimpse.
I think of Issa’s poem. I think of that old Tom Waits song, “The last leaf on the tree.” I think of the oak trees from my Missouri youth. And all of this made me think of — and write — a new poem:
Late Winter Haiku
One grey leaf still clings
to the branch, curled up and dry.
Could fall any day.