Love Sonnet

Orson Welles pitching Paul Masson wine

“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.


Notes:  The news lately has been filled with dreadful reports:  mass shootings in Las Vegas, bombings in far-away lands, vile behavior by the powerful of Hollywood.

Because I know that mankind is fallen, I have no confidence in “human nature.”  But my innate positive outlook this week has been shaken.

When the week began, I learned that the son of a friend and former colleague had been one of the wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting.  He had been a law enforcement officer for over 20 years and had never been shot, nor shot anyone in the line of duty.

And then he was shot in the neck and shoulder while he was attending a country music concert.

Thankfully, he survived and is on the mend today, and should be okay.

Then, the news about the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal broke.  My Facebook feed has been filled not only lurid stories of the rich and famous, but heartbreaking firsthand accounts from women I know who have suffered in silence from heinous actions of abusers.

The sheer amount of #me too is overwhelming.

Evil is real and more common than we want to admit.

One particularly poignant series of posts has made me reassess my own hometown experience.

I’ve written glowingly about my childhood and my hometown and my education.

As I have processed the new information, I must admit that — depending on where you stood — my hometown could have been more Twin Peaks than Mayberry RFD.

There was stuff going on back there that I had no idea about.

So, in the face of horror and dread, I will resort to a place of solace and peace.

I will celebrate love, and marriage, and monogamy.

I will seek to find meaning and comfort in order and rhyme and meter.

When the society and the culture seems to be disintegrating, I will look to the good examples I have in my life and celebrate faithfulness and honor and love.

I really don’t know what else to do.

Historical note:

I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles became a television pitchman for a sort-of-good American wine.

Welles had been the genius who panicked the nation in 1938 with his faux-documentary radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” In 1941, he directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” considered to be among the best — if not the best film of all time.

By the late 1970s, Welles was making commercials. His Paul Masson spots are still classics.

“We will sell no wine before its time,” was a magnificent slogan.

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Poem Against Alzheimer’s

My mom as a young mother

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:  This month, my mother would have been 106 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

So, let me say that I hate Alzheimer’s and all its ilk.

I recently paid the fee and spit in a test tube to have my DNA read by the smart folks at 23andme.  I learned that I do not have the classic Alzheimer’s gene, so there is some good news there.

But I am well aware that no man knows his time and we’re all going to die of something.

I had a brother who joked he wanted to die at age 100 being shot by a jealous husband.  He didn’t quite make it, though through no lack of effort on his part.

I can think of a lot of better ways to go than wasting away for years after having lost your mind.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and St. Joseph’s own Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

Father Haiku

Dad's shirt from his days at Reeder Auto Parts
Photo courtesy of Terry Ball

Greased-stained forever,
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.


NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family.  The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day.  Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass.  Good money if you could get it.

Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm.  The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort.  So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.

In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money.  Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.

We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened.  I was young and didn’t get the full story.  But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.

It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him.  He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts.  It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.

He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.

My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment.  “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said.  “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”

I had no idea.

But, Dad kept working away.  Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.

Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic.  He made things work.  He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.

He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap.  But they never really got truly clean.

When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline.  I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.

He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business.  He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.

His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted.  Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce.  Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.

As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat.  Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.

Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.

I’d love to have some of that horseradish today.

 

Haiku Haiku

The haiku master
explicated his own work.
So I could do worse.


NOTES:  You could get the idea in sophisticated poetry circles, that it’s low-rent to indulge in writing poetry about yourself or discussing your own work.

You can almost hear a schoolmarmish voice laying out the ground rules.

“Best to write about concept and ideas, and always with an ironic detachment lest you should be accused of wallowing in sentimentality.

“Do not indulge in personal poetry. And, whatever you do, be sure to let the poem speak for itself. Don’t commit the sin of talking about your work or trying to explain what it means. The work is what it is, and it means what it means to the reader.”

Well, I say hogwash to all that.

And my first expert witness is none other than Matsuo Basho, the 17th century haiku master.

Like every fan of haiku, I had read Basho’s poems, but I couldn’t say that I had really gotten to know Basho until I stumbled across his travel diaries.

If I have some free time on a weekend, one of my favorite pastimes is to duck into our local used bookstore to see what new poetry books have trickled in. A couple of weeks ago, I spotted “The Essential Basho” translated by Sam Hamill.

After thumbing through a few pages, I knew I had to have it.

What I learned was that Basho made several walking journeys around Japan in the 1600s. Often accompanied by a student, he walked from town to town seeking out shrines and temples, natural landmarks, and other artistic souls along the way.

And as he went he not only wrote haiku, but he kept a journal. He would explain where he was and what he was seeing as he wrote his poetry.

Sometimes he would quote an ancient poem written about the same view he was seeing.  Sometimes he would write his own poem.  But sometimes he would humbly decline to add anymore.

Basho hired a boat at a town called Yoshizaki so he could sail out to see the famous pine trees at Shiogoshi.  He was well aware of the poem written some 500 years before by Saigyo.

All the long night
salt-winds drive
storm-tossed waves
and moonlight drips
through Shiogoshi pines.

Basho declined to write a poem of his own.

“This one poem says enough,” Basho wrote. “To add another would be like adding a sixth finger to a hand.”

But, when he does write his own poems, Basho often provides the setting to give the reader enough context to better understand the meaning.

For example, when he writes this haiku, it is possible to get a feel for what is going on from just the text itself:

If’ I’d walked Walking-
stick Pass, I’d not have fallen
from my horse.

But it means much more when you read Basho’s explanation.

“They say the ancient poet Sogi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga,” Basho wrote. “I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.”

In other cases, without the poet’s explanation, you won’t really understand the poem at all.

On the second day,
I’ll rise early to welcome
the oncoming spring.

On the surface, this seems like a sentimental, but shallow little seasonal poem.  But when you read Basho’s context, it becomes a much more interesting and humorous glimpse into his soul.

“Reluctant to see the year-end,” Basho wrote, “I drank until well past midnight on New Year’s Eve, only to sleep through the morning on New Year’s Day.”

It turns out Basho missed the first morning of the new year because he was hung-over.

If he had been alive today, I’m pretty sure Basho would have been a blogger. I’m happy he left behind his journals to help us understand his work.

With such an illustrious example as his, I resolve to be less sheepish about providing commentary on my own poetry.

Hometown haiku

 

Minuteman missile silo, Saline County, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.


NOTES:  In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country.  Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.

The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either.  There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town.  Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.

The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.  They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.

The idea was deterrence.  Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us.  We hoped nobody blinked.

It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close.  But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.

A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby.  These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.

I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs.  If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target.  I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.

The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status.  Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.

In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job.  The Russians never attacked.   The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.

In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded.  Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves.  And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.

China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if  they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.

Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke.  Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.

Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.

It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.

Hometown tanka

The 1969 M senior guys and their pyramid scheme
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Dear upperclassmen,
we idolized you so much,
you were like heroes.

Then, that class trip fiasco,
And class trips were abolished.


NOTES:  The class ahead of us in high school was impressive.  It included some very smart and talented people who challenged and inspired us underclassmen.

Counted among its members were some of the best athletes, actors, debaters, musicians and scholars ever to come out of our little Missouri town of Marshall.  When they went away to college in the fall of 1969, they returned on their breaks with fascinating stories of life at their campuses.

I paid close attention to their testimonials, and followed a couple of them when it came time to make my own college choice.

The class of 1969 certainly went out with a bang.  Our high school had long had a tradition of the senior class trip, which involved a long trek to some exotic destination far enough away to make getting there grueling and sleep-deprived.

That year the seniors made the long bus ride to Six Flags Over Texas.  But during the course of that journey, something happened.

The stories we heard were somewhat hushed and confusing, but whatever happened was so serious that school officials cancelled senior trips forevermore.

The next year, there was not even a discussion about our own class taking a senior trip. Not. A. Chance.

The Class of ’69 was already notable in that it had voted to abolish the venerable tradition of selecting the most popular and respected girl to preside over Achievement Night as Miss Fair Marshall.

Now, our heroes had managed to put the kibosh on another tradition.  In a way it enhanced the reputation of the Class of ’69 even further.  In addition to all their other superlatives, they had also become the Biggest Screw-Ups.

I’m hoping some of my old schoolmates from the Class of ’69 might finally come forward with the true story of what transpired on that notorious trip.  Why don’t you just come clean?  Confession is good for the soul and the statute of limitations on your crimes certainly has expired.

Some members of my own class are still a bit aggrieved that we didn’t get to have our senior trip because of you.

It would be good to be able to put the scurrilous rumors to rest, and to finally forgive and forget.

STYLE NOTE:  Like haiku, the tanka is a traditional Japanese short poem form with a prescribed number of syllables.  The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7.