That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.
Notes: Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true. Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.
The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.
I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.
FALLING LEAVES LIKE LOVERS
The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.
NOTES: It was a mild and beautiful and extended autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, but the rains and winds have returned, knocking most of the remaining leaves off the trees over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Oak trees are not as plentiful here as they are back in the Midwest, where this poem was written some 35 years ago. But if there is an oak around, you can bet it will be hanging onto its leaves long after all the other trees have shed theirs.
The pasture is brown,
and snow has left the mountains.
But the sky. The sky!
NOTES: Late summer signs are coming early to the Pacific Northwest this year. This past winter we broke a 122 year record for rainfall in Seattle. We got 44.67 inches of rain from October through April. Which was the wettest such stretch since record-keeping began in 1895. (We rack up almost 9 inches in February alone.)
So, of course, we’re now working on a rainless record. Nothing since June 17.
But not to worry. This is the Pacific Northwest. No matter how dry it gets this summer, we know that the rains will return in the fall and remain with us for what seems like forever. So we can relax and appreciate the beauty around us.
Such a great view here.
The Cascades are breathtaking.
You’ll need to trust me.
Midwinter warm spell,
Evening mist, tree frog calling,
NOTES: Took a walk yesterday and heard a tree frog for the first time this winter. It reminded me of this haiku from awhile back.
I have walked now and then in rain,
Walked until the road gave way to stones.
I have known a thing or two of pain.
I’ve returned home alone at night
To rooms that don’t speak back to me at all.
I have stayed up late without a light.
I have watched the half-moon disappear,
Watched until the frost benumbed my face.
I have seen the seasons of the year.
I have left warm, pleasant rooms for plain,
Left without a word explaining why.
I have known a thing or two of pain.
NOTES: It’s a cold, rainy night in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m stuck miles away from my honey. It seemed like a good occasion to dust off this old poem.
In the autumn night
the rains return, much louder
than I remember.