Poem for Mother’s Day, in Defiance of Alzheimer’s

Mother holding me in 1952

She Knew the Names of Things

She knew the names of things, knew them by heart.
Not just the farmwife flowers of the yard,
But the wild ones in the hidden woods.
And in the woods, she knew the names of trees.
She knew quaint sayings about country ways.
“That’s no sign of a duck’s nest,” she would say,
Defying explanation even then.

She knew the names of birds, common and rare:
The Red Wing, Meadow Lark and Mourning Dove,
Brown Thrush and Gold Finch and sad Whippoorwill.
She knew them by their call as well as sight.

She knew the names of lonely widowed aunts,
And she knew dates and anniversaries,
And surely, she recalled that doleful day
When the son who called her “Mother” was fished
By divers out of San Diego Bay.
For grief, she never spoke of it again.

And though she’d barely gone to school, she
Had sense enough to hang a dishrag up,
She knew her Whitman and her Bible well.
And when the door-yard Lilacs bloomed she paused
Amidst the sweet perfume, breathed, and recalled
The poem and soft fragrance that she loved,
Sweet messenger of spring—but not too sweet,
Not like the syrupy Petunias
That she also loved, but differently.
She always favored the modest flowers
That had a tinge of tragedy and loss
Like Lilacs and Lillies of the Valley,
Named for the suffering Savior of mankind.
She knew the things she loved, and she could name them.

But winter of the mind came drifting in
And names of things were slowly covered up,
As when the snow erases hue and shape
And leaves the garden white, formless and blank.

The soaring Hollyhocks were overcome,
Begonias, Honeysuckle, Marigolds,
The Morning Glories high atop the gate
Were covered, as was Aunt Minerva, too,
(Whom she loved like the mother she had lost),
And cousin Gene undone at Normandy,
And buried there amidst a cross-white field.

Peonies bowed their heavy heads beneath
The heavy snow and disappeared away.
So too, the old folks’ graves that she adorned
With their bouquets each Decoration Day.

Wild Lady Slipper too did not escape,
Entombed beneath its own soft shroud of white
With Buttercup, Catalpa, Trumpet Vine,
With Thistle, Jimsonweed and Columbine.
And covered too were Maples, Elms and Oaks,
The Willow tree we started from a branch,
The stately Cottonwood that soared above
The old farm woods, completely covered up.

And covered too were barefoot childhood days
On Clear Creek growing up carefree, before
Her still-young mother died of Spanish Flu,
And left five other kids for her to raise.
Those days she loved them, and she knew their names:
Hayward, Walden (though others called him Joe)
Jesse, Vivian, and the youngest Bill.
All these names buried and forgotten now.

Gone was her motto written out longhand
Held by a magnet to the old icebox
With wise and frugal counsel: “Use it up
Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Old photographs stuck in a musty book
Assembled even as the blizzard blew,
A vain attempt to thwart the mounting snow,
The names obliterated anyway
By endless pitiless nameless white.

I walk now through the fiery leaves of fall
And ponder piles of faded photographs,
Repeating names I learned so long ago,
Recalling things and places I have loved

In hopes this recitation will forestall
My own impending blanketing of snow.
Perhaps my winter will be mild—or not.
Perhaps I will become snowbound as well.

But I shall say the names of things ’til then
And recall her who taught them first to me.
Remembering, turn my face to winter’s blast,
Defying it to dare to land a blow.
For I shall sing the names of things until
I lie here frozen stiff beneath the snow.


(2019)

NOTES: The poems I learned at my mother’s knee employed meter and rhyme. So it’s only natural that I’m most comfortable with forms like ballads and sonnets. They speak my heart language. I’ve long agreed with Robert Frost that writing in free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. It may do wonders for the self esteem, but it’s hardly sporting.

But lately, I’ve had the itch to write something longer than a sonnet, or something more ambitious than eight lines of rhyming couplets. After digging around, I settled on blank verse, which sticks with meter, but dispenses with the need for thyme. Sort of like playing tennis with the net lowered a couple of feet. I suppose if it was good enough for Marlowe and Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

My mother died several years ago after a protracted siege of some type of dementia. It may have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but it was likely some other variant because it dragged out longer than usual for that particular form of dementia. We never had a formal diagnosis.

I hope the poem speaks for itself and provides a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day.

P.S. Extra note for poetry nerds: The last 14 lines came the easiest for me. Only when they were completed did I realize that they were almost a sonnet. However, the lines were not rhyming, except for one rhyme at the end. I guess old habits are hard to break.

 

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Formal Poetry vs. Free Verse

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Formal poetry versus free verse. The debate is more than a century old and I don’t intend to settle it. But I will confess my bias right up front.

I find myself drawn to poetry with meter and rhyme because that is my heart language–the verse I learned on my mother’s knee.  My parents read nursery rhymes aloud as far back as I can remember, followed by Eugene Field, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Whitcomb Riley. In school we read Shakespeare and Poe, and memorized Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

And though one high school English teacher did his best instill in us his conviction that Walt Whitman was the greatest of poets, by then it was too late. By that point my ear was trained, and while Whitman’s soaring verse in Leaves of Grass had a certain charm, it was the charm of a foreign language.

Over the years since, I have made an effort to appreciate free verse with some success. Raymond Carver broke through. Marie Howe has landed a punch or two. So did Donald Hall and Hayden Carruth, (and I appreciate the latter’s occasional return to rhyme.) I’ve even attempted to write a few free verse poems myself. But all along, it has been a bit like learning a second language.

One of the best debates about the relative merits of formal poetry and free verse takes place on the pages of a book I recently picked up off the bookshelf in my adult son’s old bedroom. The book is Old School by the American writer Tobias Wolff.

It’s a wickedly funny story about an elite boys prep school set in 1960. The plot turns on the school’s periodic literary contest. The winner of each contest has the honor of a private meeting with the semester’s guest speaker, which has traditionally been a famous and successful author.

Early in the book, Wolff has the audacity invite none other than Robert Frost into his novel and put words into the mouth of the aging poet. With the students and teachers assembled in the school’s chapel. He recited several of his poems, ending on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, Frost is challenged by one of the young teachers, a Mr. Ramsey, who introduces his question with a critique of formal poetry.

Your work, sir, Mr. Ramsey said, follows a certain tradition. Not the tradition of Whitman, that most American of poets, but a more constrained, shall we say formal tradition, as in that last poem you read, “Stopping in Woods.” I wonder–

After Frost corrects Ramsey about the actual title of the poem, the teacher forges ahead to make his point.

Yes sir. Now that particular poem is not unusual in your work for being written in stanza form, with iambic lines connected by rhyme.

Frost replies, intentionally mistaking Mr. Ramsey for one of the students.

Good for you, Frost said. They must be teaching you boys something here.

Frost’s mischievous “mistake” triggers an outburst of laughter from the students, but when the poet asks him to continue with is question, Mr. Ramsey is undeterred.

Yes sir. The question is whether such a rigidly formal arrangement of language is adequate to express the modern consciousness. That is, should form give way to more spontaneous modes of expression, even at the cost of a certain disorder?

Modern consciousness, Frost said. What’s that?

Ah! Good question, sir. Well–very roughly speaking I would describe it as the mind’s response to industrialization, the saturation propaganda of governments and advertisers, two world wars, the concentration camps, the dimming of faith by science, and of course the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Surely these things have an effect on us. Surely they have changed our thinking.

When Mr. Ramsey finally finished, it was clear he was making more of a statement than asking a question. Frost then responded in kind.

Don’t tell me about science, Frost said. I’m something of a scientist myself. Bet you didn’t know that. Botany. You boys know what tropism is, it’s what makes a plant grow towards the light. Everything aspires to the light. You don’t have to chase down a fly to get rid of it–you just darken the room, leave a crack of light in a window, and out it he goes. Works every time. We all have that instinct, that aspiration. Science can’t–what was your word? dim?–science can’t dim that. All science can do is turn out the false lights so the true light can get us home.

Mr. Ramsey began to say something, but Frost kept going.

So don’t tell me about science, and don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in that one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’s always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very find and pleasant to think ourselves the most put upon folk in history–but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I will write poems for him. Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you–with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give us a true account of the loss?

Frost has been looking right at Mr. Ramsey as he spoke. Now he broke off and let his eyes roam over the room.

I am thinking of Achilles’s grief, he said. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed toe cry–sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?

I suppose we could have expected nothing less from Frost, who once famously compared writing poetry without rhyme and meter “like playing tennis without the net.”

And I must admit, I was cheering on the old curmudgeon as he put the impertinent schoolmaster in his place.

Cold Autumn Poem

Autumn scene

Autumn Song

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.


(1979)

Notes:  Took a walk this evening and it finally felt cold for the first time.  Cold enough to pull this old poem out, dust it off, and trot it out again.

Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate.  My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all too well.

I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis.  We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder.  We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.

Autumn has its beauty.  “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.

But the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors.  And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.

Why Poetry?

A philosophical poet

I Sing Not for Glory

I sing not for glory nor for bread,
Nor for the praise of the credentialed clique.
But for hire more valuable instead,
To touch the honest kindred heart I seek.

I sing for lovers when love is green,
When time stops for a solitary kiss.
When light shines anew as with new eyes seen,
I celebrate your fey and fragile bliss.

I sing for the lonely, lovelorn heart,
When light grows cold and aching will not cease,
When your enchanted world falls all apart,
I offer modest salve to give you peace.

I sing for the pilgrim searching soul
Pursuing the heart’s true cause and treasure.
May heaven’s hound, you hasten to your goal,
And propel you to your proper pleasure.

I sing for the wise who see their end,
And, too, for those who have not yet awoke.
For to a common home we all descend,
With common dirt for all our common cloak.

I sing not for money nor for art,
Nor to amuse curators of our trade.
The simple wages of the simple heart
Will satisfy when my accounts are weighed.


NOTES:  I understand April is Poetry Month.  In keeping with this solemn occasion, here’s a poem about poetry.

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.

She said “Yes!”

Wedding candid, 1985. Not sure precisely what is going on, but she's got a list and is checking it twice.
Wedding candid, 1985.

THE PASSIONATE WRITER TO HIS LOVE

Come live with me and be my love,
Assured before you voice your fears
That we will meld as hand to glove
With tender wearing through the years.

How could I love another more,
Or ever you abandon me?
So come, our prospects let’s explore
Assay our hopes in honesty.

I’ll write old-fashioned poems for you,
The kind that sing with foot and rhyme,
To soothe your ear and gently woo
Your cautious heart in its due time.

We’ll stay abed when springtime rains,
And care not if it’s ever done;
We’ll pedal wooded country lanes,
And bask beneath a merry sun.

In lilac-time I’ll break for you
The heart-shaped leaf and purple bloom
That flourished when our love was new,
And filled the night with strong perfume.

Like hardy husbandmen of old,
Who ploughed and tilled the fertile soil,
We’ll give ourselves to labors bold,
And harvest children for our toil.

And when the winter of our years
Bespecks our thinning hair with snow,
We’ll stoke our fire against the fear,
Companions though the chill winds blow.

Relentless time moves on apace,
Time leaves its vanquished under stone.
But we can win at time’s own race
By choosing not to run alone.

Defying reason, let’s unite
To form a sturdy three-fold cord,
A braid miraculously tight,
Of bridegroom, bride and gentle Lord.

If my proposal your love stirs,
If this be your desire for life,
If to my faith your heart avers,
Come live with me and be my wife.


Notes:

Thankfully, sometimes love DOES work out.

After some bump and bruises, I finally found the love of my life. Thirty-one years ago I wrote her a poem. Not leaving anything to chance, I shameless ripped off the first line from Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.” The rest was mine.

It may not have been wholly original poetry, but it did the trick. She said “yes.”

The funny thing is … soon after that I wound up practicing direct marketing copywriting as my day job.

After my experience with this poem, I should have known I was destined for direct marketing. The poem was my very first direct marketing letter.

I got a 100% response rate. Retention has been solid, and long-term value excellent.

Thank you, Christopher Marlow.

Autumn Song

Afternoon in late September

AUTUMN SONG

Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.

When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?

Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation