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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Poem for Poetry Month

Bobby Ball 1972

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 couldn’t allow Poetry Month to slip away without posting this manifesto for those who write for love.

The photo is from long ago and far away, before I had much to write about. But that would change in time.

 

Poem for Poetry Month: A Conceit

As the oyster forms the pearl, so the poet pens the verse

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet feels the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart clandestinely.

So the diver frees the pearl,
Breaks the stony shell apart.
So the poet frees the verse
Ripped out of his broken heart.

(2015)


There’s a pretty spot along Fjord Drive in Poulsbo, Washington, called Oyster Plant Park. I don’t know the details of the history, but if you were going to put up an plant to process and can oysters it seems like good place.

Liberty Bay is shallow, and at low tide, it reveals a large expanse of shoreline covered with shellfish.

The first time I walked along the shore I was puzzled by the way oyster shells were littered all about the surrounding neighborhood. It looked like it has been raining oysters. Shells in the street. Shells in yards. Shells on the roofs of houses.

I determined that the hungry gulls must have figured out how to snatch the oysters from the shore, fly to a proper height, and drop the unfortunate mollusks so they would crack open. Brutal but effective.

That place sparked a metaphor, which turned into this extended metaphor of a poem, which, as my high school English teacher Paul Hagedorn reminded me, is properly called a “conceit.”

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.

Winter Walk

Frozen moon through grey trees

The Yuletide lights are packed away,
+++++Grey leaves creep down the street.
The trees at dusk are shades of grey,
+++++Grey sky makes grey complete.

The old man mutters as he scrapes
+++++His trash can to the curb.
The trees complain and sway their shapes
+++++As gusts their peace disturb.

Thin clouds scud past the frozen moon,
+++++The distant highway drones,
Debris from windy storms lies strewn,
+++++The path gives way to stones.

A solitary sparrow picks
+++++A solitary seed
Out from the desiccated sticks
+++++To slake its piercing need.

We’ve reached the nadir of the year,
+++++The time when flowers sleep.
No wish can make them reappear
+++++From their repose so deep.


(2019)

NOTES: Winter can be dreary in the Northwest. The days are as short as they are long in summer. It rains incessantly. Storms roll in from the Pacific and wreak havoc with trees and electrical power grids.

I know. I know. This may sound wimpy when my friends back in Minnesota are staring at temperatures in the 20s below zero Fahrenheit this week. It’s true that we enjoy a Marine climate here on the Puget Sound. It doesn’t get that cold, and I’ve shoveled snow exactly one time since I moved here 25 years ago.

But winter is long, and  I’m eager for the page to turn and the return of the crocus and the robins.

I’ve noticed that walking without earphones or music stimulates the poetry center of the brain.  I think it’s because I hear what’s going on around me.  As I walked this past week on a windy evening, I noticed the tall evergreens making a perceptible swishing sound, back and forth, back and forth.

Read the second stanza aloud and see if you can hear it, too.

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.