Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sonnet celebrating conjugality

Paths were I've put my foot before

Familiar Ways

I choose to walk the old familiar ways,
To wend ways where I’ve put my foot before,
To gaze anew on views seen other days,
Which, though familiar, never seem to bore.

The changing light and seasons have their ways
Of making old things new: The light-laced hoar,
The first-flush, green-glow, bursting-forth spring days,
The growing tinge of gold we can’t ignore.

Each day, my dear, I choose afresh our trail,
The one we blazed so many years ago,
Eschewing other routes that might avail,
And hewing to the well-worn way we know.
Forsaking novelty need be no jail
With your face bathed in sunset’s golden glow.


(2016)

Notes:  June is a big month for weddings. I know I’ve got an anniversary coming up soon. When people ask me how long I’ve been married, I have to stop and do the math. In the early years it was easy. We took in a young cat a month after our wedding, and so for 20 years I knew we were as married as the cat was old.

But when the cat died I was forced to use other memory tools.

As I was working on this sonnet a couple of years ago, I was reminded of a story poet John Ciardi related about Robert Frost, who at a lecture was asked by a woman in the audience: “Mr. Frost, surely when you write one of your beautiful poems, you are not thinking of technical tricks!”

Frost looked at the woman a while and replied, “I revel in them!”

Ciardi says Frost was like a horse trader who “would pick up an idea and whittle at it until he either wound up with a little whittled shape or a pile of shavings on the floor.”

I felt a little like a horse trader as I was writing this poem. It started with a simple, little idea. I can’t remember ever “whittling” more on a poem before. At first, this one seemed like it just never wanted to happen. I just kept whittling and whittling until something very different began to emerge from where I started.

After what seemed like an eternity, I began to see the tricks of the trade — namely rhythm, diction, image and form — coming together to embody the simple little idea.

This one did not plop, fully formed, into my lap. It was written, re-written, and re-written again. I wrote in on my phone. I copied it out by hand in a notebook. I typed it in Microsoft Word on my laptop. I read it aloud and even recorded a reading of it to hear how it sounded.

I found myself being keenly aware of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme like never before.

I found myself unconsciously using the same sounds and rhymes over and over again as if I was consciously reinforcing the central idea. Then, I found myself breaking the pattern with lavish, flamboyant word choices in the middle of the poem to demonstrate the message.

I found myself coming around to embracing a metaphor in the final part of the poem. It was an idea that emerged only after the first part of the poem was written.

It may be a pile of shavings. Or it might be a little whittled shape.

You can be the judge.

Sonnet Upon Seeing a Photograph

Doing what brides' mothers always do

Please Tell Me

Tell me the photograph I lately spied
While idly searching round the internet,
One of a greying woman and a bride,
A common scene of longing and regret,

She’s fussing with the buttons and the dress,
Just doing what brides’ mothers often do
To stall the creeping sense of uselessness …
Please tell me that this woman isn’t you.

Her eyes are heavy-lidded widow’s eyes,
Not wide and worshipful how I recall.
Her weary face with sorrow etched likewise,
Not fresh and freckled tempting me to fall.
Her lips so tightly clenched that I surmise
These can’t be lips that once held me in thrall.


Notes:  Not that I need any more reminders, but time is moving on.  I — and those I have known and loved and lost — are getting older.  And life is not always kind.

Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.”

Robert Herrick said, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “It is the blight man was born for.”

I say … well, you can read the poem …

©Bobby Ball 2018 (written 2018)

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.

Autumn Haiku

Fall's first full moon on Raspberry Ridge

Autumn’s first full moon
upstaged by earthly beauty
and a rusty truck.


NOTES:  We’re enjoying a gentle fall here in the Pacific Northwest.  Just a kiss or two of rain to save the grass.  Warm sunny days and cool nights.

We know the rains and clouds and grey will return and will be with us for months.  But for now we’re basking in our little illusion of heaven on earth.  Autumn flames and dies and winter comes.

Robert Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “It is the blight man was born for.”

I humbly say, “Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down. All of this aching beauty will decay.”

Mother’s Day Poem

My first poetic champion

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:

My mother loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.

Why write poetry?

Samuel Johnson had things to say about writing.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Samuel Johnson

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.

 

©Bobby Ball 2017


NOTES:  Samuel Johnson was a funny guy.  If his aphorism is correct, that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” then poets are the biggest blockheads of them all.

A few diligent writers of books and screenplays and advertising copy can manage to make a living scribbling words.  But poets need another gig to pay the bills.

Most often, they teach.  Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest and a teacher.  Robert Frost famously tried his hand at farming, but he also taught and lectured.

Some poets have conducted quite conventional careers during the day to support their poetry habit at night.  Insurance executive Wallace Stevens and physician William Carlos Williams are a couple of well known examples.

Englishman Philip Larkin earned his living as a librarian.  American Charles Bukowski was a postal clerk.

Dylan Thomas really couldn’t do much else besides write poems, and so he waged a losing war with poverty until he drank himself to death.  He probably would have perished much sooner except for the fact he was able to charm wealthy female admirers into becoming patronesses.

About the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned gentlemen is that while I sometimes commit poetry, I also need another means to make a living.

I started my professional life in the 1970s as an ink-stained wretch of a newspaperman.  While chasing deadlines was exhilarating when I was still a young man, there were already storm clouds on the horizon for journalism.  Afternoon dailies were going extinct, and cities that had formerly had 2, 3 or more newspapers were seeing them merge or go out of business.

Little did I know that in just a few years, the internet would come along and fatally wound the mainstream media organizations, forcing them to trim their newsrooms and close  regional bureaus.

I sensed that there was a disturbing uniformity of political opinion in the newsrooms of my youth.  My own political worldview was still evolving, but even back then everybody I worked with seemed to be left-leaning and Reagan-loathing.  The lockstep groupthink bothered me.

In my naïve idealism, I thought journalists were supposed to be fiercely objective.  I never caucused with any party, and I strove to play my own coverage right down the middle.  I’d have coffee with both Democrats and Republicans, and always made sure to pay my own check because I didn’t want to owe anybody anything.

When the owner of one paper tried to pressure me to join the local Rotary Club, I refused because I didn’t want membership to influence my coverage of any organization.

If I had still been a journalist this past year I think my head would have exploded.  With news organizations colluding with political campaigns, and sharing debate questions in advance with the favored candidate, it became clear that our creaky old news institutions had jumped the shark.

I would have burned my press card in protest.

I wish I could say I was smart enough to foresee the death of journalism and jump ship intentionally, but it was more random than that.  I was about to get married and I needed a job in Minneapolis.  The cash-strapped metropolitan dailies weren’t hiring right then, and so I took the first job I could get.

Fortunately I had stumbled my way into direct marketing. That later led me into non-profit fundraising.  The bulk of my career since has been helping good causes raise money.  Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, defending the persecuted, visiting those in prison, bringing the good news to those in bondage — that sort of thing.

I began to appreciate what I do a whole lot more when I stopped thinking about it as marketing and started thinking about it as “soul stirring.”  When I’m doing it right, I touch the heart to stir people up to good works, and inspire them to be generous.

If you ask me, that’s really just a short step away from poetry.  It’s all soul stirring.