Hidden in the trees
A solitary dove calls.
Again, my heart breaks.
Long before I discovered girls, my first love was 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.
I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart.
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 moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.
We were married 30 years ago today.
The inspirations for this poem are multiple. Several years ago, it was coming on to midsummer and my wedding anniversary.
I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But 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 more poignant song ever written.)
In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational thing where he repeats 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 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, upon the occasion of my 30th wedding anniversary, I submit this little poem. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago:
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.
Today is my wife’s birthday, so I’m giving her a little poem.
What I miss most …
What I miss most when I’m away
Are the small shared jokes, the spoken and unspoken
Tokens of affection, the markers of our common history.
Like whenever you can’t find some misplaced thing
And I say, “It must be with your credit card,”
Which you lose like clockwork once a week
And then miraculously find again after a couple of days.
Or when all I have to do is ask, “You awake?”
To get a chuckle from you remembering
That old joke about Swedish foreplay,
Which leads to the joke about Scottish foreplay
And one of us saying, in a really bad accent,
“Brace yourself, Lassie!”
And then there’s that good old standby, “Want a backrub?”
That holds the promise of so much more.
Then there’s the way you have of so badly mangling
Ordinary, everyday sayings so as to make them
Almost unrecognizable, yet which make sense
In some altogether new, mysterious way.
How can I be jealous when you see some actor on TV,
And offer your careful, studied opinion,
“I wouldn’t kick HIM out of bed with a ten-foot pole.”
Or even though you may be mad at me
How can I do anything but laugh
When you stand there hands on hips and scold,
“You don’t listen to me two hoots!”
And I had no idea what you were talking about
When you said, “It was spreading like hotcakes!”
But I knew, whatever it was, it was going to be a big deal.
And of course, I had to just stop and marvel
When you described some half-baked effort of mine as
“Just a dent in the iceberg,”
And I didn’t even care that I knew I had a lot more work to do.
And it’s funny how our daughter seems to have inherited
Your gift of mixing words to make brand new verbal gems,
Or, as she so aptly put it just the other day,
“The spawn doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”
And there’s the way we can order dinner for each other
And just about always pick the right thing … because we just know.
Or the sound as you talk on the phone to some girlfriend
And I don’t even care what is being said on the other end
As long as I can eavesdrop on the music of your voice.
Or the way you propose some outrageous adventure
And then shortly thereafter change your mind,
Just to, I can only suppose, keep me on my toes.
“Never a dull moment,” is how I describe my life with you,
And, really, can there be a better endorsement?
Raymond Carver wrote a lot about his difficult youth, about his battle with drink, and about fishing.
But he also wrote about love. Early on in my reading of Carver, I would skip over a lot of his poems because I detected early on the subject matter just didn’t grab me.
But I stuck with it and started finding gems. Like this one written to his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher. I believe it was written late in his life when he knew he was dying.
Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.
I’m not sure it this is Carver’s best poem because I haven’t read them all yet. But, it’s a contender, in my book.
I had a friend who once made a random observation.
He said, “You know, there comes a point when old people just stop buying clothes.” I had never thought about it before, but he had a point. I thought about that single strand of insight.
One thing led to another and it eventually led to this poem. Yet another experiment with free verse.
There’ll come a day …
There’ll come a day when I shall no longer buy clothes.
I’ll eat fried chicken and biscuits smothered in bacon gravy
And wash it down with bourbon, and smoke a cigar.
And I’ll tell the waitress a joke and she’ll blush and she’ll scold.
And it will be alright.
And on that day, I’ll cancel the newspaper,
Or maybe just stop sending them my money,
Unless they beat me to it and go out of business first.
I’ll drink strong coffee and stir in heavy cream
And if I want, I’ll stay up late and sleep ’til noon
And I’ll go outside without a hat and walk on the grass
And turn my face to feel the sun
And I’ll give my cash to bums and beggars,
And make a trip to Goodwill,
And bring my college books,
And the suits I wore for business.
But I will keep my poetry,
And my old Bible.
And my photographs of you.
To remind me of all I know,
Or ever need to know,
Of truth, of beauty, and of love.
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.
Today, on the Eve of St. Valentine’s Day, I want to share a new love poem of mine with you. But first, bear with me while I tell you about a poet and a poem that played a part in shaping it.
One of my favorite love poems of all time is John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed.”
It manages to be both funny and sexy at the same time.
Donne was a complex guy. He was both a poet and a priest. His verse could be mischievous and amorous, but more often was spiritual and somber.
Even if you haven’t read his poetry, you’ve surely heard some of his lines, among the most famous in English literature: “No man is an island,” and “never send for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Born into a Roman Catholic family in England when that status alone could get you killed, he stubbornly clung to the faith of his youth … until he didn’t. Then he converted and became an Anglican cleric.
It was said that when he was a young man, “he spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes, and travel.” The rest, I suppose, he spent foolishly.
Today, when hardly anything is forbidden, I find Donne’s 400-year-old love poem quaintly racy–in a wholesome sort of way. I’m not a prude, but I have no patience for literature meant only to shock. When I open a book of verse and see the writer spewing obscenities and graphic descriptions just to show he—or she–can, my immediate reaction is: “Why don’t you try being interesting? Amuse me!”
I enjoy love poems for grown ups. Especially now, having cultivated a marriage through many seasons, I am keenly aware of just how precious love can be. And, having reached a certain age and having witnessed the deaths of parents, brothers, and classmates, I’m not taking anything for granted.
So today, I submit this grown-up love poem for your consideration.
I must give credit where credit is due. I most certainly stole an idea from Donne, when he strung together his series of prepositions in his “Mistress” poem. When I got to certain spot in my own poem, there was really no better way to finish it than to string together a few of Donne’s prepositions.
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.