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.

 

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.

Poem in protest of spring

Late snowfall

COME GENTLE SNOW

Come gentle snow and cloak the ground,
Shroud budding branches all around,
Let not one scent of spring be found,
Make flowers wait.

Come frost and freeze the throbbing juice,
Break March’s short and shaky truce,
No sprout nor songbird yet aloose,
Let spring be late.

Come wind and make the oak leaves hiss,
When they descend no one will miss
Their brittle shade — no artifice
Can bring them back.

Come night and steal the season’s gain;
The verdure will begin to wane
Despite the wealth of easy rain
If it stays black.

Come sleep and shield me from the past,
Help me forget her I loved last,
Wrap safely me in sanctums vast,
Away from pain.


NOTES: We haven’t had that wonderful March snowstorm here in Western Washington yet this year.  So I’ll have to settle for a photo from last year.

We had some snow in late February, but I’m still pulling for a blizzard in March.

You see, I’m allergic to March here — the alder and cedar pollen are not kind to me.

Nearly 40 years ago when I wrote this poem protesting spring, I was an unrequited, tragic romantic. O woe was me!  I thought I’d never be happy again.  Of course, I was wrong.

If I can just make it through March to April, I should be fine.

Midsummer Haiku, Again


Midsummer sunset over the Olympics

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.

Poem against spring

Late snowfall

COME GENTLE SNOW

Come gentle snow and cloak the ground,
Shroud budding branches all around,
Let not one scent of spring be found,
Make flowers wait.

Come frost and freeze the throbbing juice,
Break March’s short and shaky truce,
No sprout nor songbird yet aloose,
Let spring be late.

Come wind and make the oak leaves hiss,
When they descend no one will miss
Their brittle shade — no artifice
Can bring them back.

Come night and steal the season’s gain;
The verdure will begin to wane
Despite the wealth of easy rain
If it stays black.

Come sleep and shield me from the past,
Help me forget her I loved last,
Wrap safely me in sanctums vast,
Away from pain.


NOTES: We had one of those late snowfalls last week. This time of year in Western Washington, there are already signs of spring.  Those signs were utterly–but temporarily–obscured by the snow.

Nearly 40 years ago when I wrote this poem protesting spring, I was an unrequited, tragic romantic. O woe was me!  I thought I’d never be happy again.  Of course, I was wrong.

Today, I still dread the onset of spring, but for different reasons. When March comes, the alder tree pollen starts to bloom. And that’s when I start sneezing.

If I can just make it through March to April I should be fine.

Winter sonnet

That bleak season

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.


Notes:  If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter.  That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.

Sprung rhythm was not free verse.  Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.

I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here.  This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm.  But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.

This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet.  It still has 10 syllables to each line.  It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.