Sonnet Upon Seeing a Photograph

Doing what brides' mothers always do

Please Tell Me

Tell me the photograph I lately spied
While idly searching round the internet,
One of a greying woman and a bride,
A common scene of longing and regret,

She’s fussing with the buttons and the dress,
Just doing what brides’ mothers often do
To stall the creeping sense of uselessness …
Please tell me that this woman isn’t you.

Her eyes are heavy-lidded widow’s eyes,
Not wide and worshipful how I recall.
Her weary face with sorrow etched likewise,
Not fresh and freckled tempting me to fall.
Her lips so tightly clenched that I surmise
These can’t be lips that once held me in thrall.


Notes:  Not that I need any more reminders, but time is moving on.  I — and those I have known and loved and lost — are getting older.  And life is not always kind.

Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.”

Robert Herrick said, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “It is the blight man was born for.”

I say … well, you can read the poem …

©Bobby Ball 2018 (written 2018)

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Winter Haiku

Royall Lyme after shave

Even in winter
one whiff stirs a remembrance
of spring long ago.


Notes: I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger of memories. I’m not sure that is a scientific fact, but anecdotally it sure seems so.

The odor of a particular janitorial product can transport me back to the polished hallways of Southeast Grade School. A hint of Lily of the Valley can put me right back in the shoes of the little boy who was me tending a flower garden with my mother.

The smell of fresh baked bread lands me in my grandmother’s house, playing with my cousins, anticipating the first bite of that still-hot bread, smeared with homemade butter and smothered in honey from the comb.

And the smell need not be pleasant. Step into a campground outhouse, and I’m right back on my childhood farm.  We weren’t the poorest farmers in the county — we had a two-seater.

And that reminds me. The smell of burning paper brings back the recollection of the out-of-date Sears & Roebuck catalogs, kept along with a box of kitchen matches in that old outhouse as a sort of forerunner to the modern room deodorizer.  You just rip out a page, roll it tight, and light it.  Everything smells much better than before!

Last month while on vacation, I was delighted to find a fragrance from the past at an Brooks Brothers outlet mall store. The bright green of the Royall Lyme bottle caught my eye almost immediately.

The heavy metal crown-shaped lid felt the same.  The faux-Old English font looked the same. And when I sprayed on a bit of the fragrance, I was taken back to the mid 1960s again.

The high school speech and debate club had boarded a school bus and driven to Kansas City for a weekend field trip.  The stated educational rationale was to take in a film or two that were not available in my rural hometown. But it was really pretty much a junket, a good excuse to get out of town and hang out in the big city.

Some of the details are fuzzy, but I think we stayed at an old Howard Johnson’s out on I-70 and Noland Road. Then the next day, with our teacher, Mr. Washburn, driving the bus, we ventured into the city.  I think the big movie most people wanted to see was Cat Ballou, which would most likely date this event in the spring of ’67.

We had no way of knowing it, but that summer in San Francisco would see the “Summer of Love,” with the full flowering of the hippie subculture. This was the era of “be-ins,” sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

But that was all to come later. Back in Kansas City, we caught a matinee, which I remember nothing about.  We ate at the Italian Gardens, at its old location on Baltimore Avenue, my first experience with ethnic food. The spumoni was redolent. It must have been soaked in some type of booze, which I had also never tasted before. A classic spumoni in an old school Italian restaurant can sometimes take me back in time.

But the most memorable experience happened when we stopped into a fancy men’s clothing store. I didn’t have a lot of spending money, so I couldn’t afford the clothes. But I found a bottle of Royall Lyme cologne in my price range and bought it.

I had a crush on a girl, and there were signs she liked me too. We sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. I wore the lime-scented fragrance.

As I walked home from the school building by myself, I recall humming Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song, with its signature line, “Feelin’ groovy.”  (From the first album I would buy for myself, incidentally.)

The sun was warm. The birds were chirping. My feet floated above the sidewalk. God was in His heaven. Everything was right with the world.

And all was infused with lime.

Speaking strictly for me, I could have died then and there.

As for peak experiences, this may seem fairly tame. But when you think about it, how many times in your life seem absolutely perfect?

I can only think of a handful.

The perfection was fleeting, of course. It always is. We went back to classes on Monday. The school year ended soon. The puppy-love romance fizzled. The summer was spent detasseling corn and bucking hay. Come mid-August and we had to endure the grueling two-a-day football practices. School started up again. I caught a cold. The entire football season I sat on the ice-cold aluminum bench as a third stringer.

Everything was not groovy.

But that one springtime, lime-soaked day was a glimpse. A foretaste of something pure and good and innocent and perfect.

My generation would try, just a couple of years later to take the Summer of Love to the next level and seize that innocence by force.  At Woodstock, half a million young people would head to Yasgur’s Farm and try to “get back to the garden,” but would wind up wallowing in trash and mud instead.

I read about Woodstock in TIME magazine. I wanted to believe in it. But I had just been blessed with indoor plumbing and central heating a few years before. Something about the filth and the litter and the discomfort just didn’t jibe with what paradise was supposed to be like for me.

Then, in December of 1969, all the false hope of the Summer of Love and Woodstock would be slammed shut at the Altamont Raceway Festival Free Concert. While the Rolling Stones played Sympathy for the Devil, a fight broke out.  And while they played Under My Thumb, a Hells Angels security guard stabbed a stoned-out and unruly concert-goer to death.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the counterculture had peaked, and I had pretty much missed it.

We were a long way from “all  is groovy.”

By the time I would head  off to college in 1970, eager to plunge into the counterculture, it had already been exposed as a false hope and an empty dream. I felt vaguely cheated, like I’d arrived late at the party.

In 1973, Van Morrison would capture the contradictions and the corruption of the hippie movement in his song The Great Deception on the album Hard Nose the Highway:

Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun

— by Van Morrison

But the idea of paradise persists. And the scent of limes still brings it back.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

May sonnet

IMG_2271

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.


NOTES:  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.  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.

Hometown haiku

House on East Porter Street, Marshall, Missouri
The old hometown seems
smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.


Notes:

For Van Morrison, it was Cyprus Avenue in his hometown of Belfast. The fancy, tree-lined street where the upper class lived.  Where a working-class boy went to dream and catch glimpses of aspirational girlfriends.

In my hometown, that street was Eastwood.  It was a shady, tree-lined street with what passed for mansions in my little Missouri farm town of Marshall.  And there here were even a couple honest-to-Pete mansions among them.  Reminders of old money abounded.

To a Johnny-come-lately, working-class kid like myself, it seemed like the coolest place on earth.  I lived on the other side of town.  Not in the poorest section, but definitely in a different layer.  My house was brand new, but it was a plain 1950s ranch house.  Utilitarian and homely.  Decorated in the finest Late Depression.

At first I didn’t have any friends among the Eastwood society.  Unattainable, I thought.  But when all of the grade school kids graduated to junior high, we were suddenly thrown together.

I became buddies with an Eastwood kid, Clyde, who, while he didn’t live right on Eastwood, lived close enough — a long block off of it.

His home was a demonstration of exquisite interior decorating, and his family a wonder of graciousness and hospitality.  I felt lucky to have such a cool friend.

We played football, we raced slot cars, and talked about our growing interest in girls.  I heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time in his basement.

When my cat didn’t come home and was eventually found struck to death by a car, I went to Clyde’s to play basketball.  I played so furiously that I eventually egged him into our only physical fight.

Because that’s how 12 year old boys grieve.

In those days of flower power and Vietnam, we did find ways to wage a few political protests, and fight against what we saw was hidebound traditions at our high school.

We eventually began to drift our separate ways, spending more time with girls than with our old guy friends.

One evening, late in our high school years, we sat around a campfire out at the park, vaguely aware that our sheltered years in our old hometown were drawing to a close.  Our oh-so-enlightened conversation including a one-through-10 ranking of our female classmates.

If I remember, we did try to maintain a sense of irony about it.

The photo atop this little poem is a recent shot of Clyde’s old house.

Hometown sonnet

Arrow Street, leading into the square of Marshall, Missouri
Hometown Sonnet

The old hometown is aging, as am I,
The once wide streets grow narrow with the years,
As night descends, you all but hear a sigh,
For what once was has gone, and twilight nears.

Now friends and kinsmen number fewer, too,
And memories fade like the painted sign
Proclaiming that the city “Welcomes You!”
Strange how one’s soul and place so intertwine.

Life used to bustle round our stately square
‘Til commerce shifted to the edge of town.
The grand facades are now much worse for wear,
Some landmarks have been torn completely down.
The business of my life took me elsewhere,
Cracks grew in walkways of both man and town.


Notes:

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but last year I made a couple of trips back to my childhood hometown. My high school class held a reunion, and there was the lingering matter of tidying up my late parents’ estate, which seemed like it would never get resolved.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my old classmates, and re-igniting long dormant memories. But, not all my classmates are doing well.  Not all of them made it back.  Not all are still alive.

The visits led to reflection, and that led to poetry.