Sonnet composed before corona

Flowering tree in April

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.

(2016)


Today was almost perfect in our little suburb. The spring sun was shining, the flowering trees were peaking, it was not too hot and not too cool. The night before, the moon was still almost full and it was splendid.

This afternoon few cars were out in the streets. Homeowners were gardening and mowing and washing their windows. Couples were out walking their dogs.  When you met a neighbor you nodded and smiled.

Yet all was not well.

When you met that neighbor you veered several feet away so as not to breathe any air they may have exhaled from their lungs. There were no close or extended conversations. Some walkers are wearing face masks.

You see so many people in the neighborhood because their schools and businesses are closed. We are home bound and quarantined.

There is a plague in the land.

So much of what filled our time just four weeks ago is now unavailable. It’s been unlike any Lenten period in my lifetime. We have given up, albeit involuntarily, all gatherings for entertainment, sports, parties, dining, drinking or carousing. I’m unsure if I’m any wiser or if my heart is any softer for it.

I didn’t have anything like our current pandemic in mind when I wrote this a few years ago. But I thought of it today on my walk.

(Yet Another) Poem Against Alzheimer’s

justin-docanto-q-i_sxORsqw-unsplash

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?

Sonnet for May

And balmy blossoms like a banquet spread

When May Bursts Forth

When May bursts forth all moisture and mirth,
And birds bestir while you are still abed,
With everything bent on fostering birth,
And balmy blossoms like a banquet spread
Call to the wanderer weary and wan,
“Close your eyes and breathe and remember nights
When you lay upon the redolent lawn,
And took your bashful taste of love’s delights.”
For though that time is but a glimmer now,
And keenness of the night is now subdued,
A fragrant echo still awakes somehow,
And stirs again a near forgotten mood.
One kiss with wonder could the world endow.
In one embrace you found all you pursued.


(2017)

NOTES: I couldn’t let the month slip away without posting this May-inspired poem.

Love when you are young and young love at any age share a common quality.  My favorite month of May reminds me of that.

When I was very young and in love for the first time, I ran across a short little Robert Browning poem called Summum Bonum, which spoke to me quite vividly at the time.  Many years  and many miles later, I discovered — thankfully — that you did not have to be young to fall in love again.

There just may be a whisper of an echo from that poem in here.

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.

 

Poem for anyone sick of winter (or who has ever lost a love)

Grey weeds withered beside a roadside ditch

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.


(2017)

Notes: This endless winter has reminded me of the poem above, written not too long ago, but inspired by events in another time, in another life.

Robert Frost once said:

Ah, when to the heart of man
++Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
++To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
++Of a love or a season?

The comfort I can offer is only this: Love, like spring will surely bloom again.

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.

Midsummer Love Poem

Here comes midsummer's milestone of our love

Here Comes Midsummer’s Milestone

Here comes midsummer’s milestone of our love,
Years since our selfish selves we pledged to yield,
So we’re as broken-in now as the glove,
I wore so long ago while in the field.

Fresh from the store unworn straight to my room,
Rubbed in the oil and every crease explored,
All through the night I savored the perfume,
The musky linseed leather I adored.

Come sober daylight with our job to do,
All awkward stiff not giving either way,
How many sweaty strivings’ deja vu
It took before we as one flesh could play.

Some ragged days I’d spit and pound the palm,
Or hurl the thing against the dugout wall,
But all the while a magic mute and calm
Mutated hand to glove with every ball.

The softening was gradual but sure.
Soon nerves and muscles seemed just like they spanned
From fingertips to join the glove secure,
As if I had been born with one webbed hand.

We’ve come now to the eve of middle age,
Well worn but with a lot of sport to go.
We must each for the other one assuage
Those stinging blows life certainly will throw.

We’ve held through wins and losses and through rain,
That etched new cracks not there at all before.
But loves like this were made to take the strain,
Just like that piece of cowhide that I wore.


(1992)

Notes:

Not long ago, I asked my wife if she had a favorite poem. Her blink reaction was, “the one about the baseball glove.”

It was written sometime in the early 1990s. We were just starting a family. My career was having troubled taking off. The agency where I worked had just downsized, leaving the few of us who remained in a state of anxiety.  I would take long lunch breaks and write poems parked by the side of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

Years before, back in my Missouri hometown, my first love had been baseball.

I cannot begin to total up the hours spent playing baseball, watching baseball, collecting baseball cards, sorting baseball cards, reading about baseball, and dreaming about playing in the World Series.

My first baseball glove was a treasure, my most prized possession.

I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart. Hot summer nights were made tolerable listening to games my little transistor radio. Harry Caray (who broadcast for the Cardinals BEFORE he jumped to the Cubs) was my favorite.  “Holy cow!”

When I played one-man whiffle ball against my friend Royce, we would pick a team and go through the line up as each individual player. If the guy batted right, we batted right. If he batted left, we batted left.

(We drew the line at pitching left-handed, because neither of us was truly ambidextrous.)

Our spare time was spent searching for discarded pop bottles which we could turn into the neighborhood grocery store for two cents apiece. Every 5 bottles meant we could buy two more packs of baseball cards.

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, we discovered girls and moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.

We were married 33 year ago this June.

The inspirations for this poem are multiple. I recall midsummer drawing near and along with it my wedding anniversary.

I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But, despite the oppressive job I was enduring, I was confident that good things still lay ahead.

I was also listening to a lot of Van Morrison. His song “Madame George” was stuck in my head. (Quite possible the most poignant song ever written.)

In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational scat-singing thing repeating the words “love” and “glove” over and over in an almost hypnotic chant.

My story is about a very different glove, and a very different love. But that merging of the two rhyming words was lodged in my mind.

The result of all of this ferment was this poem.

The only time I’ve ever read it in public, I was told it was “an audacious metaphor.”

I’ll take that.

Today, I post this little poem again. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago.